Mamma Mia! is not high art. But it is the mother of all jukebox musicals — shows that use previously released popular songs as the score. People don’t go to these productions looking for deep messages, or any messages, really. But they go in droves. Mamma Mia! is the eighth-longest-running production in Broadway’s history. It first opened on London’s West End in 1999; it moved to New York in 2001, and has been pumping out the hits on tours around the world ever since.
With a score from ABBA songwriters Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus and a book by the Brit Catherine Johnson, Mamma Mia! proves that audiences are more than willing to forgive a weak or silly plot for the sake of watching a Broadway-caliber cast spicing up the tunes that shaped their early musical memories.
Opening night of Mamma Mia! in Overture Hall on April 28 ended with the entire audience dancing in their seats to “Dancing Queen” and “Waterloo,” two classic ABBA songs that have filled up dance floors since the Swedish pop quartet won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1974.
For the record, we heard “Dancing Queen” three times: once early in the show, once in the spectacular multi-song costume-change encore and finally in the Overture Lobby, which was dolled up for a real, live reception celebrating the pre-show wedding of Najme Ibrahim and Faton Krasniqi, a handsome couple who somehow consented to share their special night (and delicious wedding cake) with 2,000 strangers streaming out of the concert hall.
Here’s the story that took the world by storm: Lovely Sophie (Chelsea Willliams), 20, is about to marry the hunky Sky. Sophie was raised on a Greek Island by a single mom, Donna, who used to sing and dance with two other gals in Donna & the Dynamos. Sophie wants nothing more than to walk down the aisle with her dad. Sophie learns from her mom’s 21-year-old journal that it’s complicated: She has three possible dads. She invites them all to the wedding to sort it out in song and dance.
The show does have some woman-power undercurrents. I love that it’s not really about Sophie. It shows how you don’t really need a man; Donna has, after all, raised Sophie without one, and Sophie turned out great, if a little boring. Moms can be sexy, too, and when Donna is moping about growing up, one of her former bandmates tells her to “grow back down.”
The costumes are sparkly and fabulous, naturally, and the cast delivers ABBA’s numbers with lots of style, adding innovative touches like a bunch of guys dancing in scuba gear, including flippers. (If you’ve ever tried to walk in flippers, you’ll appreciate how remarkable this is.)
The writers made some inventive choices in assigning songs. Men sing ABBA tunes we identify with the angelic voices of the original Swedes, Anni-Frid Lyngstad (who officially became a princess after she married a German Prince in 1992) and Agnetha Fältskog.
In one of the best comic numbers, Tanya (Bailey Purvis) sings “Does Your Mother Know,” one of ABBA’s creepiest, to a mooning young man. The production numbers at the bachelorette party, including “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!” and “Voulez Vouz” approach or even exceed the originals. And the star of the show is Chelsea Williams, as the mother of the bride, who delivers a goose-bump evoking version of “The Winner Takes It All.”
ABBA is one of the most successful bands of all times. But that doesn’t mean that all their songs deserve to live on in perpetuity. Some of the tunes in the second act were real snoozers. Luckily, the dance party makes up for it.