Thursday, July 06, 2006

"Mamma Mia" That's a Pretty Bland Meatball

OK, so it took me 5 years to get to this show. It’s been selling to packed houses since it opened in October, 2001. One of the early jukebox musicals, it uses the entire Abba songbook. Right, wrong or indifferent it uses the ENTIRE Abba songbook.

The very loose plot surrounds Donna, whose 20 year old daughter Sophie is about to be married. Sophie has discovered that her father, heretofore unknown, could be one of 3 men with whom Donna “engaged” in a 2 month period 21 years ago. Harry Bright is British and has become a banker. Bill Austin is Australian and has become a travel writer. Sam Carmichael left Donna to return to a fiance in the US. Sophie has invited all three to her wedding, hoping to identify one as her father who will walk her down the aisle. Revelations abound, but no information is exchanged.

Catherine Johnson appears to have made her musical placements in the book by only the first line of the song. I’ve got to say I laughed out loud more than once when I recognized the song that had just begun. Unfortunately, those occasions should have been ones of higher drama. The worst example was “The Winner Takes It All” after an exchange between Donna and Sam.

And what a young cast! The playbill identifies 19 Broadway debuts among the cast. They are all young and pretty…and kinda bland. One or two may even be talented, though it’s hard to tell among Anthony Van Laast’s muddy choreography. As long as the show has been running, it’s difficult to say whether that’s the fault of the choreographer or the dance captain.

Worth mention among the cast is John Dossett as Sam (the American dad), in yet another thankless male lead in musical theatre (last thankless role was Herbie in “Gypsy” with Bernadette a couple of years ago). His vocal range almost meets what the score requires, but he manages enough conviction in his performance to achieve believability. Leah Hocking as Donna gives a valiant effort, but one can tell she’d much rather have played the role of Donna's glam-glam buddy Tanya, the only character with costumes that flatter. Judy McLane (Tanya) misses a couple of chances to push her over-the-top role, over the top in “Take a Chance on Me” while Ben Gettinger (Pepper, one of the groom-to-be’s buddies) makes a play for her. Gettinger is a prime example of this pretty, but vapid cast; handsome, great body, but he phones in the dance solo.

Naturally, the crowd was on their feet for this schlock-fest at the end. What else could they do? Most of them paid $100 or so for their seat and they’re gonna want to say they gave a standing ovation. The production encourages this as well, with a mini-Abba concert at the end which practically announces that the audience must stand and clap along.

As for production values, the sets are serviceable. Costumes presumably by production designer Mark Thompson make a swing from rural Greek peasant to 70’s Abba chic – and not in a good way. Still there’s plenty of color to distract you. There are a few overstrokes tying together the three adult women with their eventual partners – black for Donna and Sam, red for Rosie and Bill, and orange for Tanya and Pepper. There’s another scene when Sam, Bill and Harry first arrive wearing shades of blue to connect them to Sophie’s tie-dyed peasant skirt.

In the end, it was an evening of brain candy – bright colors, pretty people, fun and familiar music with no thought or analysis required. It was nominated for a Tony in 2002, but then again, so was “The Sweet Smell of Success.” Starts to sound like the nominees for last month’s awards.

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