Mamma Mia! is what Your Hit Parade might have been if the creators had decided that, rather than presenting a series of unrelated skits, they'd slot all the week's chart-toppers into one storyline. From that perspective, Mamma Mia! has all the rewards of a good night on Your Hit Parade--but with a $100 top ticket price. The show is pleasing as it passes and it certainly features a generous swath of songs that caught the world's fancy during the '70s and '80s. There's no question that the patron who doesn't know or particularly care for ABBA is not a patron for whom Mamma Mia! will have any meaning whatsoever.
Here's the Mamma Mia! plot in brief (nobody could give or listen to a lengthy description without snoozing): Donna Sheridan (Louise Pitre--pronounced "PIT-ruh," not "PEA-tree"), a single parent and taverna keeper on an unnamed Greek island, is about to marry off her daughter Sophie (Tina Maddigan). Soph has figured out by reading her mother's old diary that one of three men is her father, so she invites them to her nuptials: They are Sam Carmichael (David W. Keeley), Bill Austin (Ken Marks), and Harry Bright (Dean Nolen). All three show up, as do Tanya (Karen Mason) and Rosie (Judy Kaye), who used to be in a singing group with Donna. Within a 24-hour period, complications crop up relating to Donna's discomfort around her old beaux and her guilt about not having been a proper mother. Sophie, meanwhile, airs some resentments about being fatherless; her fiancé, Sky (Joe Machota), comes to think that the wedding is just a ploy for Sophie to suss out her real dad.
No one will be surprised that everything turns out merrily right in the end but, to the credit of book writer Catherine Johnson, not always as might be predicted. Johnson doesn't dig too deeply into the characters' psyches; how could she when there are 22 foot-tapping ABBA tunes to be accommodated? But neither does she fob off the sort of pretentious, joyless affair that occasionally crops up, Saturday Night Fever-like, on the Main Stem. Johnson's mother-daughter conflict and resolution have enough substance to ward off any such dire embarrassment. And though the secondary characters of Mamma Mia! are two-dimensional, those dimensions are humorous; in particular, the no-nonsense Rosie and the sort-of-soignée Tanya are good company. Sophie's pals Ali (Sara Inbar) and Lisa (Tonya Doran) get shorter shrift, introduced at the beginning of the show and then shunted to chorus duty.
Directed with efficiency by Phyllida Lloyd, the players are more than up to the task--and they'd better be. After working through the show like a wait staff during the lunch rush, they're called on to deliver Broadway's best new curtain call, a sing-along-dance-along affair that cannily gets the audience on their feet. Tina Maddigan, a blonde with a Grace Kelly jaw line, may be the standout of the cast; she sings and dances with pep, retaining enough vigor to execute a cartwheel in that busy finale. Louise Pitre's Donna is frazzled in the right way. A gray-haired sparkplug, she sings meaningfully; however, when she emotes in song (as in "The Winner Takes It All"), Pitre has the peculiar habit of stressing each important word with a tic-like shake of her head.
Judy Kaye, last seen on Broadway as Emma Goldman in Ragtime, may be making the biggest career leap as Rosie. Emma would not have known what to make of the space cadet outfits that Rosie dons along with Donna and Tanya, but Kaye knows just what to do. So does Karen Mason. A cabaret fixture, the tall, angular Mason has rarely been called upon to perform Joanna Lumley-style physical comedy in her club dates; here, she does so with the aplomb of a veteran second banana. The strapping David W. Keeley is a strong presence as Sam, the man Donna seems to have valued most in her past, and he's got a voice that allows him to score vocal bulls-eyes even when he's just standing and singing with his arms at his sides. Ken Marks's Bill, an adventurer who seems to be American but has published a book that has the word "bloke" in the title, is personable and summons up the right, playful cringe factor when Rosie makes a proactive play for him. Dean Nolen, as the Brit in the gang, is also appealing to have around. (By the way: Although Mamma Mia! is set in a Greek pleasure spot, little about it is particularly Greek, even if lighting designer Howard Harrison does beam down many a ray.) Joe Machota's Sky is a likeable lad; as written and played, he commands respect for having a smidgen of intelligence. Nor does it hurt that he's built like a marble sculpture. Mark Price, as an adolescent on the make for Tanya, is also nicely noticeable.
But musical comedy lovers must face the truth: The reason Mamma Mia! exists has everything to do with the multi-million-selling ABBA songs. Those who know and love the Scandinavian quartet will have a great time hearing their favorites reprised by a fantastic Broadway cast, often slip-sliding into choreographer Anthony Van Laast's Hullabaloo-inspired dance steps. Die-hard ABBA-heads will chuckle at the way each lively selection has been shoehorned into the gossamer script. Listening to so many of these Benny Andersson-Björn Ulvaeus tunes in one evening sheds some light on what it is that made ABBA so hot. It's certainly not that Andersson and Ulvaeus, with or without Stig Anderson, were innovators. Quite the opposite: The Swedish songmeisters succeeded on a global scale by aiming directly at the English-speaking market with virtual pastiches of the bubblegum songs that were jumping off record store shelves at the time. Even the group's name, taken from the first names of its members (Agnetha Faltskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad were the women), can be seen as a reference to a standard rhyme scheme.
Martin Koch, who frequently toils for Cameron Mackintosh, has brightly transported the bright ABBA arrangements to the stage for Mamma Mia! and seen to it that the kids of the chorus are singing backup, whether off stage or on, when the full ABBA sound is called for. It's not Koch's problem that sometimes the numbers aren't buttoned neatly. The most unfortunate example of this is the non-coda of "Take a Chance on Me," sung by Kaye and Marks and sounding as if it's leading to an ovation until it's abruptly cut short.
As triumphantly calculating as Andersson and Ulvaeus were in formulating their songs, that's how triumphantly calculating the Mamma Mia! producers have been in crating a money machine that doesn't need critical acclaim. First of all, this is a one-set show: To conjure Donna's taverna, all that's employed against a blue-sea panorama are a couple of set pieces, part of a tree, and a boat named Waterloo. That's all folks--and no one complains that he didn't get his C-note's worth.
One of the ABBA songs given the full-out Mamma Mia! treatment is "Money, Money, Money." The musical's purveyors didn't necessary spend a lot to make a lot, but make a lot they will. And what's wrong with that?