I believe that every diet needs the occasional spoonful of Marshmallow Fluff directly out of the jar.
I have a fond memory from a few years ago. I’d never seen Mamma Mia! and was about to see the movie for the first time. Now, this was right in the throngs of my musical theatre conservatory training, the height of my pretension, where it was outrageous to me that such a show could exist and that everyone wasn’t watching a movie version of, like, Passion or The Last Five Years or something (strange how far we’ve come in that the latter is actually happening soon).
So, I’m sitting in the theatre, and the movie starts up, and Amanda Seyfried and her friends are bopping along singing “Honey, Honey”, and in my mind I’m thinking, This is the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen in my life.
My face, however? Pulling into the biggest grin I’ve ever worn, and it would just not go away the whole movie. My brain said “No!” but my heart said “Go!”, so to speak. You go get ‘em, Meryl! Show that boy, Christine Baranski! God love you for trying, Pierce Brosnan! I was getting a physiological lesson in the value of “Just for Fun” entertainment, and I’ve carried that with me in my point of view ever since.
Last night, I went into the National Theatre ready for my Marshmallow Fluff, ravenous like a kid who was finally tall enough to reach it in the cabinet. I felt the old embarrassed smile creeping back during the overture.
But it never quite made it.
I’ve been working for several hours to find the best way to say just why this tour of Mamma Mia! is so disappointing, but the easiest place to start is that it’s not the fault of the cast onstage. There is a lot of talent up there, but I’m kind of mad at Work Light Productions and Joy Dewing Casting for putting them up in this no-win situation.
I suppose it’s important to point out that this is a late iteration of the tour, a non-Equity, wildly pared-down affair. Mark Thompson is still credited with designing the sets (and “production”), which now struggle to fill the large space of the National Theatre. At this point we have a couple of rotating Greek pueblo walls (I’m sure there’s a term for it that I don’t know), which are primarily rotated by a working-their-hardest ensemble at precisely the moments where I most wish they could be free to dance. No, dancing around with the chair you’re moving doesn’t count.
I’m talking about dance like the sharp, still-fun choreography of the big numbers by Anthony Van Laast. The best moments are the most choreographic, like “Voulez-Vous” at the end of act one and the excellent curtain call (but we’ll get to that later). This cast appears to have been primarily drafted for dance, and they deliver in that respect.
As for direction, it still says Phyllida Lloyd in the program, but what I watched felt like a Xerox copy-of a copy-of a copy of Lloyd’s staging, created for other actors and carefully colored into inside the lines by the casting of these particular performers. They push hard to make the gags work, and sometimes they do, though seldom with ease or connection.
Again, I don’t fault them. I know that Work Light and Dewing had to fill the unholy triumvirate of High Non-union Talent, Looks Right for the Role, and Fits in the Costume. Naturally the overlap area is going to be small and compromises have to be made. Please note, however, that I am NOT saying that non-Equity actors are inherently less talented. I bet you could assemble a non-Equity cast better than the Broadway company if you weren’t behooved to the above-mentioned Venn Diagram.
There’s no shortage of actors eagerly jumping for this kind of opportunity. From a glance at the cast headshots and bios, the overall effect is, “wow, these kids are so YOUNG.” They might as well be clutching their BFAs right there onstage (I bet it helps give them torque on the pirouettes). I wanted them to have more growing opportunities, or get to work with directors in smaller venues who will actually cultivate that raw talent.
As for the adults, it’s hard to shake the notion of “The Best I Can Do”, to crib a lyric from the show. Thing is, I would totally listen to a night-long rock set sung by Jeff Drushal (Sam). I want to see Mark A. Harmon (Harry) in a production of Noises Off. I bet Michael Colavolpe (Bill) would play Bottom the Weaver to the nines. They and the rest just aren’t highlighted well here.
In this respect, thank God for Chelsea Williams. If you were going to get one genuinely solid, connected performance out of this tour, be happy that it happens to be the role of Sophie, emotional center of the play. That it also happens to be the role with the statistically highest competition level for this sort of tour – a young female ingenue – is no surprise, as Williams is the deepest talent from the largest pool. She manages to make the big choices, get her laughs, and most importantly fill the beats, both the frivolous and the emotional, so nothing looks superficial. She also dances very, very well. She sounds solid and controlled, though the musical style leads her right to the edge of pushing, where she fortunately does not cross…take care of your voice, Ms. Williams.
Music-wise, the various tight harmonies sound good and the band hits a groove, so props to music director Kevin Casey for both elements. This particular six-instrument orchestration is pretty anemic, though. Which surprises me, as you’d think a pop/rock show could get away with a smaller combo, and I’ve heard that work in the past. Alas, not here.
Despite all these limitations, tickets for this tour run you $48-$128, in the same range as a bigger tour earlier in its life, which gives the appearance of a giant, singing and dancing search for a widened profit margin. If anything, it does make me want to see what the show is supposed to look like, up in the New York production, which at this point you could probably see from a good seat for half the price of this tour.
Then again, though, the audience seems to be OK with this. Mamma Mia! boasts one of theatre’s most rousing curtain calls, a fun triple encore of ABBA hits, and it’s designed to get audiences on their feet. It’s terrific: great dancing, concert lighting, and the best choreography of the show finally unleashed. Everyone looks like they’re having a ton of fun. It is genuinely awesome.
Problem was, though, that I couldn’t see half of it because I would not stand up. I can’t. I won’t let myself if the production itself doesn’t make me. I must have looked like the biggest grump in the world to everyone else in that audience, but I was doing it for them.
Don’t you see? I tried to ESP-beam into their heads. Imagine how wildly, how insanely we’d be reacting if the show had actually earned this! The thought genuinely motivates me to check out Mamma Mia! for real.
North American Tour of Mamma Mia! . Music and Lyrics by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus . Book by Catherine Johnson . Directed by Phyllida Lloyd. Choreography: Anthony Van Laast, Production design: Mark Thompson Lighting design: Howard Harrison. Sound design: Andrew Bruce and Bobby Aitken. Musical supervision, additional material and arrangements: Martin Koch . Presented by National Theatre . Reviewed by John Dellaporta.