It was the spring of 2000 in not-so-swingin’ London.
MTV UK was alternating between Madonna’s shortened version of “American Pie” and Brittney Spear’s “Oops.. I Did It Again.” The Millennium Wheel (also called The London Eye) had just started to operate. And… Mamma Mia was a blistering hot theater ticket.
Capitalizing on the success of the ABBA Gold album throughout the UK, producers hit the jackpot by combining energized dance numbers, a crowd-pleasing story, and songs that will rattle in a person’s head for weeks.
Spending four months in London, I was among the last to see the original company and, seeing the show a second time, among the many to see the first replacement company. Mama Mia was not yet a full-fledged guilty pleasure back then. It was still a fresh idea—use a skimpy plot line to glue together songs by a single rock group. That was before the idea was imitated successfully for Billy Joel’s music in Movin’ Out and not-so-successfully for many other groups and artists including The Beach Boys (Good Vibrations)*; Earth, Wind & Fire (Hot Feet), John Lennon (Lennon), and Queen (We Will Rock You).
Now, in 2016, Mama Mia has run its course as an American theater powerhouse. The 2015-16 touring company, which will visit 43 venues in eight months, is a bittersweet goodbye for this musical, which closed on Broadway on September 5 after 14 years. Perhaps all is for the best because the show will now begin its delayed second life at smaller regional theaters and high schools.
The plot focuses on Sophie (Kyra Belle Johnson), a 20-year-old about to be married on an island off the coast of Greece. Her mother Donna (Erin Fish) is a hardened feminist and former disco singer. Sophie invites three men to her wedding in hopes of figuring out which is her father. Hijinks ensue, two characters get married, and the curtain call includes encore performances of “Dancing Queen” and “Mama Mia” and finishes with a performance of “Waterloo.”
Certain songs retain their value much more than others upon a fourth viewing:
“The Name of the Game” and “Knowing Me Knowing You” are both addictive songs that become creepy within their Mama Mia contexts. The lyrics of “The Name of the Game,” imply a confused lover asking her partner where their love affair stands. Having Sophie sing this song to Bill (Ryan M. Hunt) doesn’t translate given that she thinks he might be her father. Equally odd, “Knowing Me Knowing Me” is another song about jilted love, but in this case Sam (Chad W. Fornwalt) sings to Sophie, who he believes to be his daughter. The premise that Sam is repeating a conversation he had with his ex-wife gets lost among all of Sam’s belting.
“One of Us” and “Winner Takes it All” share the award for song that most needs to be cut. These are Donna’s “victim” numbers. She is a strong, independent woman most of the time, but while singing these two songs suspense of disbelief crashes as she weeps for Sam despite not having seen him in almost 21 years. Donna is a much better character when she is the powerhouse that inspires Sam to tell Sophie, “Don’t worry about Donna. She doesn’t scare me… much!”
Donna fairs much better when she is empowered. “Mamma Mia” is choreographed as a “This can’t be happening” moment in which Donna processes that three former lovers have unexpectedly landed on her doorstep at once. “Super Trouper” brings Donna and the Dynamos on stage, spandex outfits and all, to sing a song about being a lonely singer. This musical is at its best during moments when the nods to ABBA are tongue-in-cheek.
Tanya (Laura Michelle Hughes) and Rosie (Sarah Smith) are the scene-stealers. Tanya’s “Does Your Mother Know” provides the best excuse for athletic dancing as four young men attempt to impress the older, freshly divorced woman. “Take a Chance on Me” reverses gender roles as Rosie aggressively pursues Bill around the stage, knocking down chairs as they go. In each case, one of ABBA’s best songs redeems a second act that otherwise drags with energy-deficient songs like “Our Last Summer,” “Slipping Through My Fingers,” and “I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do.”
Catherine Johnson, the book writer, understands the most important rule of musical theater: end the first act on your highest note. “Voulez-Vous” is the musical’s most energized number with the full cast choreographed to emphasize the song’s series of rapid downbeats. The context even manages to further the plot by emphasizing Sophie’s anguish as her plan implodes. Mama Mia has a number of strengths, but “Voulez-Vous” is the most concise explanation for this show’s extensive run.
*NOTE: While researching jukebox musicals, I found that Wikipedia lists 12 that preceded Mama Mia and 58 that followed in its platform-shoed footsteps. This list includes biographic musicals like Jersey Boys and Beautiful. I also found New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley’s review of Good Vibrations, which begins with such fantastic prose that I have respectfully included it here:
“Even those who believe everything is here on this planet for a purpose may at first have trouble justifying the existence of “Good Vibrations,” the singing headache that opened last night at the Eugene O’Neill Theater. But audience members strong enough to sit through this rickety jukebox of a show, which manages to purge all catchiness from the surpassingly catchy hits of the Beach Boys, will discover that the production does have a reason to be: ‘Good Vibrations’ sacrifices itself, night after night and with considerable anguish, to make all other musicals on Broadway look good.”