Review: Mamma Mia! is playing this ABBA hit parade
By Perry Tannenbaum
There’s typical teenybopper inanity – and melodrama – in the lyrics of ABBA tunes that infiltrated the pop charts during the glam rock supergroup’s heyday, 1974-82. It’s all about desire, baby, followed by intense workouts on the hormonal treadmill of adolescence. Prospecting for ABBA gold, you’re rewarded with the age-old cycle of blissful acceptance or bitter ejection, romantic pleasure and conflict, burnout and breakup, cynicism and regret, all rendered in the elegantly engineered shorthand of a Top-40 hit.
Something interesting happened in 2001, after even the youngest member of ABBA had turned 50 and the quartet’s jukebox faves were cunningly transformed into a hit Broadway musical. You can feel it at Matthews Playhouse of the Performing Arts, where Mamma Mia! is playing through February 9. Writing the book for this ABBA hit parade, Catherine Johnson gave most of the songs to characters we could presume were nearly her own age, almost 44 on opening night. Old enough to have teenybopper kids of their own.
When a teenybopper pout is transformed into a midlife lament, regret takes on a whole new coloration in the title song as Donna Sheridan sings:
Yes, I’ve been brokenhearted,
Blue since the day we parted.
Why, why did I ever let you go?
The “day we parted” isn’t two melodramatic weeks ago. Not anymore. It’s over two decades ago, long enough for Donna to be experiencing the autumnal chill of lost youth. But hold on, Donna! You’re on a colorful Greek Isle, with lively cabana studs serving your taverna’s drinks, bikini-clad nymphs frolicking everywhere, dazzling eternal sunshine – and your darling daughter Sophie is getting married tomorrow!
It was easier to see Mamma Mia! from Sophie’s point of view in its Broadway days, pre-Meryl Streep, for Sophie really kickstarts the plot by prying into Mom’s secret diary and inviting all three of her possible dads to her wedding. Imagine if your three exes showed up unexpectedly for your daughter’s wedding. Sophie might as well have hired a skywriter to spell it all out: MOM, I READ YOUR SECRET DIARY AND INVITED ALL THREE OF MY POSSIBLE DADS TO MY WEDDING. Donna probably wouldn’t have looked up and noticed.
Presumably, Mamma is preoccupied with wedding preparations, but Donna compounds her distractions by inviting two of her old chums, Tanya and Rosie, to the festivities. Plenty of catching up to do, but conveniently, the three women were a glam rock vocal trio back in their salad days, Donna and the Dynamos, so they can provide the party entertainment. With this makeshift guest list and its ‘90s setting, the prevailing outlook of the story shifts emphatically toward the baby boomers, ABBA’s perennial demographic.
Directing the show, Billy Ensley clearly gets the boomer drift, and more than a couple of seasoned Charlotte musical stars ride the wave with him to the Matthews Playhouse stage. With a richly detailed scenic design by John Bayless and a sumptuous array of costumes by Lisa Altieri – including a surprise set of glam rock duds for the dads – it’s likely that all of these vets appreciated the warmth of their welcome.
We don’t need to wait around for all these elders to gather in the Mediterranean sun before the excitement begins, for Ensley has found newcomer Alexis Thomas to ignite the action as the nubile Sophie. Thomas quickly proves she’s a precocious belter, bookending Act 1 with lead vocals on “Honey, Honey” and “The Name of the Game.”
Having deceptively invited her three possible dads – Sam, Bill, and Harry – using Mom’s letterhead, Sophie must also subject each of the candidates to an impromptu paternity test, inviting all three to give her away at tomorrow’s wedding. The hurried brevity of these scenes would make any self-respecting playwright blush, but Thomas carries them off as if they were hallowed Broadway formalities, codified as cliché. Which they are. Spencer Ellis doesn’t get nearly as much opportunity to shine as Sky, Sophie’s fiancé, but he makes his big moment in Act 2 count, letting Sophie know that he feels her quest for her true dad is a bigger thing to her than their wedding.
Of course, the ABBA songs, stirred by island breezes and mixed with the celebratory vibe of the oncoming nuptials, become a cocktail that takes all six of the mid-lifers sip by sip from the tipsiness of nostalgia to the full inebriation of regression and reawakening. The women are the most intoxicated here, each arriving at her own pace. Burdened with a mother’s cares and saddled with the bitterness of a jilted sweetheart, Lucia Stetson as Donna travels the longest path – though the magic is there from the moment she sees Sam.
Stetson staunchly deals with the fact that Donna is prone to some truly stupid-ass choices, flexing the same regal star-quality insouciance that carried her through the title role of Evita a couple of summers back. Notwithstanding the baggy overalls she wears early on, we’re not surprised that she’ll soon emerge as a “Dancing Queen” and a “Super Trouper” – singing lead vocals, of course. You wonder a bit at first about Lisa Smith-Bradley, sporting a pair of mousy eyeglasses as Rosie, a far cry from the charismatic Mama Rose she brought to Theatre Charlotte seven years ago.
Never fear, Ensley and Smith-Bradley are cooking up a startling mouse-to-tigress rejuvenation as Rosie sets her sights on Bill, sinking her slinky claws into him in their “Take a Chance on Me” duet. Lisa Blanton talks like the bawdiest woman onstage as Tanya, but is it all talk? No, it is definitely not as we watch Blanton’s cougar rampage on “Does Your Mother Know?” Blanton pulls double duty at Matthews, doubling as the production’s choreographer, captaining her own carnivorous showcase with obvious gusto.
Aside from Thomas, a young talent to watch, the most promising of the young Greeks is Adrian White as Pepper, prime target for Tanya’s predations in “Does Your Mother Know?” – agile and slightly bewildered. He’s the dancing king here, for none of his elders, aside from Blanton, was chosen for hoofing prowess.
We’ve seen all the middle-aged guys before in Charlotte, Bob Mauney most recently starring in The Music Man at Theatre Charlotte, Steven B. Martin in Evita and Bridges of Madison County, and Patrick Ratchford in anything he has ever auditioned for over the last 25+ years, most recently 1776, Ragtime, and Charlotte Squawks! The Ratchford voice is still in peak condition, mostly held in reserve until Sam’s “S.O.S.” duet with Donna in Act 2, an all-out cri de Coeur in the top-40 world. Those smooth baritone tonsils also wrap themselves around two other hit singles, “Knowing Me, Knowing You” and – spoiler alert – the climactic “I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do” duet.
Sam isn’t the most comical of Donna’s exes, just the most interesting: the last he heard from her before Sophie’s faux invite was that she didn’t want to see him again. Understandably, he’s a bit uncomfortable and ambivalent when Sophie admits the subterfuge, but like the other guys who are also residually fond of Donna in various degrees, the possibility of being Sophie’s father keeps him hanging around in hopes of closure – and maybe making amends.
Martin as Harry and Mauny as Bill follow parallel tracks, not called upon to do much singing. Neither squanders his opportunity, Martin in a nostalgic “Our Last Summer” duet in Donna’s bedroom (here we go again?) and Mauny as Rosie’s willing prey in their “Take a Chance on Me” tête-à-tête. Bill claims to be an adventurer, so a tigress should be just right up his Aussie alley.