A classy musical based on ABBA tunes? Who would have thought? Well, former ABBA members Benny Andersson and Bjrn Ulvaeus did with their new show, “Mamma Mia!” An energetic, fast-paced romp from beginning to end, “Mamma Mia!” is one of the most entertaining musicals to come out in years.
“Mamma Mia!” takes place on a small Greek island, where 20-year-old Sophie (Michelle Aravena) is about to get married to Sky (Ryan Silverman). Sophie”s mother, Donna (Dee Hoty), a free-spirited single woman who operates a hotel on the island, has never known the true identity of Sophie”s father. Plagued by curiosity, Sophie steals her mother”s diary and reads of her mother”s relationships around the time she was born. Without Donna”s knowledge, Sophie sends wedding invitations to three men who could be her father. To everyone”s surprise, all three show up, giving Donna a headache and the island a lot to talk about.
Sophie”s predicament lends itself to a number of comical situations, bolstered by perpetually cheery ABBA music and a host of colorful characters. Among the most colorful are Donna”s two gal-pals and former “Donna and the Dynamos” bandmates, Tanya (Mary Ellen Mahoney) and Rosie (Gabrielle Jones). Middle-aged blonde vixen Tanya is easily the funniest character in “Mamma Mia!” Her flirtations with the locals and physical comedy take the show to hilarious heights. Both Rosie and Tanya bring Donna out of depression with soulful renditions of “Chiquitita” and “Dancing Queen.”
It”s almost frightening how well the ABBA songs fit into the storyline. The lyrics, particularly to songs such as “Slipping Through My Fingers” and “Lay all Your Love on me,” provide much insight into the show”s characters. Themes of past love, commitment and growing older are all embedded in the music, which is often quite powerful.
The set is surprisingly simple there are only two adobe-shaped buildings and a few pieces of furniture. But what “Mamma Mia!” lacks in props it more than makes up for in choreography and lighting. The dance-driven numbers, such as “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!” and “Voulez Vous” are glamorous disco spectacles. And while such a show might seem out of place on a tiny Greek island twenty years after disco died, these dance sequences are certainly the highlight of “Mamma Mia!” Decked out in rhinestone-covered pantsuits or bellbottoms, the dancers showed off their best moves to Anthony Van Laast”s stellar choreography.
While much of the story focuses on Sophie”s quest to find her father, “Mamma Mia!” ultimately belongs to Donna. The audience sympathizes with Donna not only because of her stressful life circumstances, but also because she”s such a likable person. Dee Hoty, a three-time Tony nominee, tackles the part with conviction. As a woman confronted with her daughter”s wedding and three of her past flings on the same weekend, it”s a remarkably complex role but Hoty, like her character, is as genuine as they come.
“Mamma Mia!” only borders on cheesy at the very end, when the cast breaks into a marathon of ABBA dance songs, such as “Waterloo.” But while cheesiness is often considered a no-no in musical theater, it works in “Mamma Mia!”the flashy costumes and even flashier lighting are part and parcel of the entire experience. You might be skeptical about a musical based on ABBA tunes, but “Mamma Mia!” gives you no reason to worry: By the show”s finale, you”ll be on your feet, partying like its 1979.