Super troupers! This 'Mamma Mia' has the look and the fun
"Mamma Mia!," the much-loved and now ubiquitous ABBA musical, is one of the few West End and Broadway shows that you could say work better in the round. That's the takeaway, at least, from director Rachel Rockwell's new Marriott Theatre production, an intimate and resonant staging of the ever-daffy but beloved 1999 jukebox show that focuses on finding emotional moments of female bonding.
I still dine out on having seen "Mamma Mia!" in London, right at opening. Eighteen years and thousands of shows later — including what must be at least a dozen nights spent watching this very show — I've still never experienced an audience having more delirious fun than on the night when "Mamma Mia!" was new and Benny and Bjorn were reborn before our eyes.
You should know further that my getting to see live Ulf Andersson, the saxophonist on many of the ABBA recordings (most famously, "I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do") and now a special guest on the ABBA tribute circuit, was a highlight of last summer. So if you are looking for a caustic or cynical view of allegedly vacuous Scandinavian pop, you are in the wrong place. Too many albums played and concerts seen, too much personal history, too much thank you for the music, the songs I'm singing.
In 1999, of course, the audience was far more likely to know all of the music in "Mamma Mia!," and the sport of the night in ABBA-mad London was in guessing how each ABBA greatest hit was going to be used and where it was going to be stuck in a plot about which people cared not a hoot. At this point — when "Mamma Mia!" has grossed more than $2 billion and played to 60 million people, never even mind the movie — most people are repeat visitors who aren't much surprised by anything.
ABBA, a huge phenom in Europe, rarely toured stateside, so as these songs have receded from popularity, the show now plays more and more like a legit musical with standard numbers, instead of the gently campy parody and love fest it seemed at its birth. So goes life. As the great poets Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus noted in their sonnet about the vicissitudes of our journey on this stale promontory, "Slipping through my fingers all the time." The best we can hope for is being known by a Super Trouper.
Rockwell's No. 1 asset in this production is Tiffany Tatreau, who might just be the spunkiest Sophie Sheridan of all time. Her red hair is far removed from the original Swedish look-alike casting trope, Tatreau has the perfect pop voice for this material, along with all the requisite charm and vulnerability. She's delightfully connected to Danni Smith, who reads as young for the lead role of Donna Sheridan, the feminist pioneer of a Greek island taverna, but whose relationship with her daughter (she of the three possible dads) could not be any warmer; the best scene of the night is the wedding dress sequence, when mom and daughter celebrate each other.
The potential sperm donors are fun, too: the possible dads are played with self-effacing charm by Derek Hasenstab, Peter Saide and Karl Sean Hamilton. And the backup section of Donna and the Dynamos are essayed with relish by Meghan Murphy and Cassie Slater, laugh machines the both. Rockwell finds a lot of new humor in those nostalgic numbers and the choreographer, Ericka Mac, has some gentle fun with the big set-pieces.
Also notable is the witty design by Scott Davis, replete with walls and shutters at the rear of the theater, out of which people can pop, singing "Mamma Mia." I also thought this was the most beautifully costumed take on the show I've seen; the gorgeous summer dresses, et al., are the work of Theresa Ham.
If you're someone who'd travel anywhere to see this show, know that this is a much warmer and thus more enjoyable production than the recent Paramount Theatre endeavor, the first major local production after the rights became available following the end of the show's 14-year run. Yep, 14 years. No wonder Bjorn has a private island in Stockholm. Fully deserved, too.