Scandinavia has always struck me as an odd place. Strange accents, long winters, and musically they seem only capable of producing either sugary, bubble-gum pop or intensely over-serious heavy metal. A strange combination, indeed. Yet it was in pop music where the Thor of the Scandinavian music scene rose up and conquered dance floors and discos around the world: ABBA.
ABBA generated such a massive catalog of catchy tunes in the late ’70s and early ’80s that it was decided they should be mined for a musical and, thus, “Mamma Mia!” was born and became a huge hit. The traveling production stormed through St. Louis last week for a limited engagement at the Fox Theatre and brought with it more than its fair share of energy and fun.
More than a simple musical revue, “Mamma Mia!” weaves the ABBA tunes around an elaborate little story. Young Sophie Sheridan (Carrie Manolakos) lives on a Greek island with her mother Donna (Laurie Wells) who manages a hotel. Sophie has grown up without a father, but as she is about to get married to Sky (Corey Greenan) she discovers her mother’s diary and learns that she has three possible candidates for a father in liaisons from her mother’s distant past.
Without telling her mother, she sends a wedding invitation to the three unsuspecting men: Harry Bright (Kurt Andrew Hansen), an English investment banker, Bill Austin (Milo Shandel), an Australian adventure writer, and Sam Charmichael (Sean Allan Krill), an American architect.
Meanwhile, Donna reunites with her old friends from her long-defunct nightclub act: The vampish Tanya (Lisa Mandel) and the fun-loving Rosie (Laura Ware).
Hijinks and drama ensue when Donna is confronted with these men from her past and we learn that no one involved is quite sure which man is really Sophie’s dad.
Shakespearean plotting aside, “Mamma Mia!” is all about the musical numbers and everything else is just there in service of that fact. There are costumes, dancing, and fun – lots of it. Even the slower, more “dramatic” songs are played with a wink and a smile. The cast is solid vocally, but the production was lacking in any outstanding voices (although Wells does get to belt effectively during “The Winner Takes it All”).
Instead, the cast shines more for their acting and comedic talents, which the production has in spades. Ware and Shandel in particular had the audience rolling during “Take a Chance On Me.”
If there is any knock-on “Mamma Mia!” it goes back to the songs, which were never meant to be in a musical and at times feel kind of forced into a narrative structure. And as the lyrics take on added meaning, it also becomes clear that English was ABBA’s second language. But these are minor quibbles as the music speaks for itself and it’s impossible to leave the theater without at least three songs stuck in your head.
The first and foremost objective of “Mamma Mia!” is to have a good time, leaving it to other musicals to sweat the details. Especially in the big finale, which would seem added on and gratuitous in any other production, one can see the flashy frivolity that the musical gladly embraces.
ABBA is the cotton candy of music, light, fluffy, and will possibly give you a sugar high. And “Mamma Mia!” is the ideal vessel, delivering the fluff perfectly, although you should be warned that multiple viewings might give you cavities.