- Mamma Mia!
- Music and lyrics by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus and some songs with Stig Anderson
- Book by Catherine Johnson
- Directed by Phyllida Lloyd
- Produced by Judy Craymer, Richard East and Björn Ulvaeus for Littlestar, Universal at the National Theatre
- Reviewed by Gary McMillan
If we could harvest the energy on stage at the National Theatre, the nation’s dependence on fossil fuels would be a thing of the past. This is the second touring production of Mamma Mia! for me, so I knew the sets and costumes would be terrific. What I did not anticipate were the across the board great voices.
True, Mamma Mia! is a $2 billion juggernaut and counting, so the producers are very mindful of preserving the quality of its worldwide franchise. Susie McMonagle leads the cast as mama Donna Sheridan, proprietress of a taverna and inn on a Greek isles. McMonagle has a beautiful and powerful voice that moves with ease from the driving rock (“Money, Money, Money”) to the more dramatic “The Winner Takes It All” and “One of Us.”
What I really love about Mamma Mia! is the shear subversiveness of the pop musical with six major roles for the over-40 set. Donna’s two best friends, Tanya (Michelle Elizabeth Dawson) and Rosie (Kittra Wynn Coomer) make a strong case that 40+ is the new 30. Dawson is wickedly funny as Tanya, the merry divorcee, never better than when she bests suitor Pepper (Adam Michael Kaokept) and a bevy of shirtless young men in a rowdy dance number. Kittra Wynn Coomer as Rosie makes an otherwise stock comedic character light, bright and amusing; Coomer plays a loopy game of musical chairs while stalking Aussie Bill Austin (played by understudy Nathan Alan Johnson) to the tune of “Take a Chance On Me.”
Intrepid writer Bill Austin (Johnson), architect Sam Carmichael (John Hemphill) and Banker Harry Bright (Michael Aaron Lindner) are lured to the island to attend the wedding of Donna’s 20-year old daughter Sophie (Rose Seznak). They are all perplexed to be invited, little suspecting that it is Sophie, hoping to sleuth out which is her father, and not her mother Donna who is behind this reunion.
There is no skimping on sets (production design by Mark Thompson), lighting (Howard Harrison) and costumes. The sparse simplicity of the set with a clear blue sky or full moon overhead is warm and inviting and the set pieces slide effortlessly into place to keep pace with the scenes. The costumes are eclectic, ranging from jeans, scuba gear, and beachware to day-glow, psychedelic band costumed. (Remember when singing groups wore costumes? What were they thinking?) The sound, unfortunately, was over the top: this is ABBA for goodness sake, not Led Zeppelin. One’s ears should not be ringing for three days after a performance.
The bottom line is that Donna is the center of this crazy little universe and the show rises or falls on the shoulders of the actor playing her. Susie McMonagle is strong, witty, vulnerable, and all around smashing. The show is as fresh as the first time I saw it and better for the caliber of the cast assembled for this touring company.
Who would have thought that the song catalog of a 1970’s Swedish pop group could serve as source material for a musical comedy that would have audiences in London, New York (approaching its 7th anniversary this Fall) and around the world dancing in the aisles? Producer Judy Craymer saw the potential and nurtured the project through a 16-year gestation to open in the West End (with the Broadway opening coming roughly two and a half years after that.) Surprisingly, when you replace the catchy, yet nondescript, harmonies with a theatrical treatment, the better reflective or story songs readily lend themselves to musical comedy. Many movie-goers became acquainted with ABBA in the mid-1990s when their hit song, “Mamma Mia,” joined the ranks of other dance club icons in cult favor, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Around that same time, I was awakened to the writing sophistication of Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, in collaboration with Tim Rice (Evita, Lion King), when I came across the 1984 concept album for what would become the musical Chess. Mamma Mia! and Chess both boast some great melodies and the success of the former leaves me wondering what on earth the “creative” team did to scuttle the Broadway production after a three year run in London .
Nevertheless, what better way to avoid the sweltering summer heat of DC than to take in the balmy breezes of a Mediterranean isle where a comic fable unfolds.
- Running Time: 2:30 with 1 intermission
- When: Now through July 13th. Tuesdays thru Saturdays at 8 pm; Sundays at 7:30 pm, Matinees Saturdays and Sundays at 2 pm.
- Where: The National Theatre . 1321 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Washington, DC 20004
- Tickets: $46.50 – $151.50. Call 800-447-4700 or order on the website.