By Ted Hoover
Pittsburgh Current Theater Critic
So picture this: You get a call from a friend you’ve not spoken to in a while, she wants to hook up for drinks so you can meet her fiancé. It’s all pleasant enough but as you head back to your car you just keep thinking: “What in the name of God does she see in him?”
And that, my darlings, is how I feel about Mamma Mia!, now presented by Stage 62. This show’s been embraced to the heaving bosom of popular culture while, perhaps true to form, I’m off in a corner counting my fingers and trying to figure out what I’m missing.
Mamma Mia! continues through July 28. Andrew Carnegie Free Library Music Hall, Carnegie. 412/429-6262. www.stage62.com
In case you don’t know – and I envy you – Mamma Mia! is a show stitched together from ABBA songs. It’s one of the first of what’s called “Jukebox Musicals” where an existing song catalog is dusted off and someone invents a story to fit around it.
The reason these shows are hated by some is the same reason they’re loved by others: It’s a non-demanding and eminently safe exercise in soft nostalgia. A whole night where your hardest task is remembering where you were the first time you heard that song.
Some of these jukebox musicals have tanked; the recent Jimmy Buffet themed Escape to Margaritaville is a notorious example. (Jesse Green of the New York Times: “If ever there was a time to be drunk in the theater, this is it!”) But Mamma Mia!, following its 2001Broadway opening, ran 14 years with almost 6,000 performances. It was also turned into a Meryl Streep movie (even stars have to pay the rent) so successful they made a sequel.
And all of this from enjoyably sweet but not especially involving pop tunes by Benny Andersson & Björn Ulvaeus. Go figure.
Catherine Johnson is credited with writing the book (from an idea by Judy Craymer) which finds a young girl, Sophie, just about to get married on a Grecian isle at a little taverna run by her mother Donna who, in an especially … uh … energetic month in her youth slept with three men and got pregnant with Sophie. Now Sophie, after finding her mother’s old diary, invites the three to her wedding in hopes of discovering which is her father.
Not much of a plot, sure, but it beats the one about that melancholy Dane with Daddy issues.
A problem with jukebox musicals is how artificial the construct is. In actual musicals the songs evolve from the specific action and characters, but here Johnson just creates a mood – romantic longing, for instance – rummages in the ABBA bag and pulls out a song about romantic longing. Voila!
And that’s when she’s working hard, sometimes there’s no attempt at connection. A character says: “Remember that summer when we were in a band?” And poof!, suddenly they’re singing “Dancing Queen.”
It gets a little, well creepy when Sophie duets with one of her dads. On paper these are meant to be straight forward father/daughter scenes, but the numbers they’re singing – “The Name of the Game” and “Knowing Me, Knowing You” – have been fixed in our mind years earlier as love songs and the temptation is to look away until it’s over.
Or maybe I’ve just spent too many years listening to Stephen Sondheim because the near sell-out audience with whom I saw the Stage 62 production didn’t want to be anywhere other than where they were. Every number was greeted with whoops and wild applause.
And while some credit goes to ABBA, I believe the lion’s share belongs to co-directors Stephen Santa and Drew Praskovich, music director Ben Brosche and his band and choreographer Emily Christ.
The only justification for Mamma Mia! is the music and this group make each number a sort of mini-concert (including an actual mini-concert at the shows finale.) Santa and Praskovich know there’s only one reason for us to be there and ruthlessly refuse to allow anything else to get in our way. Credit is due, as well, to Jessica Kavanagh for the costumes and Rob James for the set.
All of these folks have come together to shine a spotlight on a powerhouse cast whose individual and collective work is, in a word, magnificent. Here’s just a partial list: Stephanie Ottey, Sara Barbisch and Missy Moreno as Donna and her gal pals. Alysia Vastardi and Christian Barker playing the would-be newlyweds. Chris Martin, Nick Mitchell and George Heigel are the possible Poppas, all backed up by a polished and hugely entertaining ensemble.
Mamma Mia! will never a perfect musical, but this Stage 62 production certainly entertains you while you’re waiting for it to show up.