Tribute to ABBA too sweet for words

Review: `Mamma Mia!' is a worldwide hit, but it remains bubblegum music with a story stuck to it.

April 04, 2002|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

ABBA-holics, forgive me, but for this critic songs like "Take a Chance on Me" and "Dancing Queen" have always belonged to the genre of bubblegum Muzak.

So, if you turn nearly two dozen of these pulsing, sticky tunes into a musical, you end up with a bubblegum musical. Granted, lots of folks like bubblegum, and lots of folks like Mamma Mia!, which is not only a hit in London, New York, Toronto and Melbourne, but also has already spawned two U.S. touring companies.

And no doubt about it, the company at Washington's National Theatre is slick and peppy. But - at the risk of stretching out this bubblegum reference for more than it's worth - after five or six of these like-sounding 1970s songs, the flavor is gone.

The show's structure is essentially a clever parlor trick. Playwright Catherine Johnson has created a plot that allows her to work in more than one-fourth of Swedish songwriters Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus' ABBA catalog - everything from "Honey, Honey" to "Money, Money, Money."

About to be married, 20-year-old Sophie decides she wants to meet her father, whose identity her single-and-proud mother, Donna, has never revealed. Discovering the names of not one, not two, but three likely candidates in her mother's diary, Sophie surreptitiously invites all three to her wedding on the Greek island where her mother runs a taverna.

It's an amusing premise and one that allows for a faint whiff of such themes as the search for identity and the mother-daughter generation gap. But as neatly as Johnson has tucked ABBA's songs into the story, there's no avoiding the fact that building a play around existing songs leaves little hope that those songs will develop character or advance the plot. If master librettist Peter Stone wasn't able to pull it off two decades ago in My One and Only - using the far richer songbook of George and Ira Gershwin - then what hope is there for such ABBA numbers as "Super Trouper" and "Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!"?

Still, in the show's better moments, Johnson and director Phyllida Lloyd get around the shoe-horning of generic songs. For starters, Johnson has made Donna the former lead singer in a 1970s girl group called Donna and the Dynamos, whose other two members are conveniently guests at Sophie's wedding. Their reunion reaches its rousing height when Mary Ellen Mahoney and Gabrielle Jones, as the now-middle-aged Dynamos, coerce Dee Hoty's dejected Donna into joining in on "Dancing Queen," augmented by increasingly geriatric antics.

As this suggests, humor is the other way the show circumvents potentially awkward musical transitions. Mamma Mia! is ready and willing to laugh at itself, a ploy almost guaranteed to ensure that the audience laughs with you, instead of at you. Once again, Mahoney and Jones, who truly are dynamos, prove to be comedic sparkplugs - Mahoney discouraging a young swain in "Does Your Mother Know" and Jones pursuing (and scaring the bejabbers out of) Craig Bennett, as one of the potential dads, in "Take a Chance on Me."

All three "dads" - Gary P. Lynch as a stuffy architect and Mark Zimmerman as a British banker as well as Bennett as a robust Australian writer - fare just fine in this show with its admirable abundance of major roles for the middle-aged.

As Donna, the woman in all their lives, Hoty is initially a tad histrionic, even by the standards of this production, but she sure can belt. In the younger generation, Michelle Aravena is sweetly meddlesome as Sophie, the bride-to-be, but Ryan Silverman is basically a cipher as her fiance.

Like the insistent music, Anthony Van Laast's choreography has a driving pulse. But it's the costumes - designed by Mark Thompson, who also created the taverna set - that steal the show, particularly when Donna and the Dynamos are done up in all their shiny, bell-bottomed '70s glory (make sure you stay for the curtain call).

With such costumes in mind, the pre-show announcement for Mamma Mia! warns that "platform boots and spandex are featured in this show." If those styles strike you as not merely laughable, but tacky and treacly, then this patchwork musical with its over-amplified pit band and a bevy of offstage background singers, probably will, too.

It may be sacrilege to say so, but artistically speaking, Mamma Mia! is far less interesting, effective and cohesive than Chess, the 1988 Broadway flop with an ABBA score written specifically for the stage.

Like another recycled product, The Graduate - whose stage adaptation tried out in Baltimore and opens in New York tonight - Mamma Mia! is a marvel of packaging, or, to put it in Graduate lingo: "Plastics!"

Mamma Mia!

Where: National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. N.W., Washington

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays; matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through June 8

Tickets: $36.25-$76.25

Call: 1-800-447-7400

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