The sight of male choristers high kicking in flippers and wet suits briefly brought tears to my eyes.
Mamma Mia! is a jukebox musical. Meaning: instead of writing the tunes from scratch, its creators gathered a group of famous songs, by 1970s Swedish pop superstars Abba in this instance, and built a show around them.
We think of jukebox musicals as a recent phenomenon -- 2005's Four Seasons-themed hit Jersey Boys is another -- but watching the Friday night opening of Mamma Mia!'s brief Overture Center run, I kept thinking of an important progenitor: The 1948 movie musical Easter Parade, starring Fred Astaire and Judy Garland. The Irving Berlin songs mostly weren't written expressly for the show, but it's nonetheless a wonderful and perfectly coherent entertainment.
Then there is Mamma Mia! Based on what I saw, I'm at a loss to account for the phenomenal success of this 1999 show, which is still running on Broadway. Understand, I'm a lover of both stage musicals and Abba, so I'm predisposed to kindness. But there are problems.
They begin with the concept. A finale of Abba's biggest hits -- "Dancing Queen," "Waterloo" -- is a reminder of how well-crafted the group's pop songs are. But that doesn't mean they work as show songs. Abba tunes have many virtues, but richly expressive lyrics aren't among them. So when they're deployed to convey stage characters' yearnings, they fall flat. True, there's pleasure in anticipating which song is coming up; the audience giggles when a character says, "I don't want to talk," because that's the opening line of "The Winner Takes It All." But these transitions feel arbitrary, and frequently the songs have too little to do with the story.
That's too bad, because the story strikes me as a sturdy bit of farce. On the eve of her wedding, a young woman (Chloe Tucker) invites three men (Paul Deboy, John-Michael Zuerlein, John Bisom) she thinks could be her father. Her mother, Donna (Kaye Tuckerman), who owns the taverna on the Greek island where they live, is mortified when she discovers the scheme. And, this being a farce, it all gets sorted out in the end. Catherine Johnson's book also introduces some intriguing ideas about parents and children and generational shifts, but these aren't really developed.
A show can rise above weak or awkward material if its performances are strong, but in that regard this Mamma Mia! falters. In particular: Tuckerman's character is at the center of the show, but she is a wan Donna. That partly owes to uninspired choreography throughout. She and others often simply stand (or sit) and sing. That approach works fine in, say, a Puccini opera, but this isn't Puccini. I hoped to be electrified by an Abba musical, but this one feels sleepy.
There are bright spots. A chorus performance of "Voulez-Vous" closes the first act, and it is the sort of well sung, well danced chorus number you like to see at the end of the first act. As Donna's friends, Alison Ewing and Mary Callanan are brassy and sly -- especially Ewing as vain Tanya. Ewing mugs ruthlessly, and she is very funny in her big number, "Does Your Mother Know," about her dalliance with a much younger member of Donna's staff.
Also: The sight of male choristers high kicking in flippers and wet suits briefly brought tears to my eyes. It's a moment of inspired lunacy, something this rather listless musical could use more of.