By Manning Harris
In these tense times when even as I write these words President Obama is speaking at the United Nations about terrorists like Isis and drums of war are beating, we can give our spirits a joyful lift: “Mamma Mia!” is playing at the Fox through Sept. 28. It’s cotton candy, dance-in-the-aisles, and the infectious songs of ABBA.
Once before this show gave the nation (at least New York) a lift when it opened on Broadway in 2001, one month after 9/11. It’s still running in the Big Apple and has become the ninth longest-running Broadway show ever, and has played all over the world.
Hollywood listened and “took a chance on me,” to quote one of its songs, and released a movie version in 2008, starring Meryl Streep. It was a huge international hit, grossing over half a billion dollars. So much for worrying whether Ms. Streep could carry a musical.
“Momma Mia” is a hit because it makes people feel good. Period. You can bemoan the paper thin plot and diss the music of ABBA all you want, but the moment that zippy overture starts, people perk up and start smiling. Some even cancel their therapist appointments (or so I’ve heard).
The music and lyrics are by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, with some songs with Stig Anderson. The book is by Catherine Johnson, choreography by Anthony Van Laast, and direction by Phyllida Lloyd. This national touring production is sponsored by Broadway in Atlanta and the Fifth Third Bank; I’ve found they bring the slickest, most professional (this is a compliment) shows to our fair city (such as “The Lion King” and “Wicked”).
We’re on a Greek Island (I feel better already). Twenty-year-old Sophie (Chelsea Williams) wants to marry her fiancé Sky (Eric Presnall), and she wants her father to walk her down the aisle—but she doesn’t know who he is. After perusing her free-spirited mother Donna’s (Georgia Kate Haege) diary, she learns it’s probably one of three charming men: Sam (Jeff Drushal), Harry (Mark A. Harmon), or Bill (Michael Colavolpe). So Sophie invites them all to the wedding, without telling Donna.
Meanwhile, mom Donna invites her two best friends, Tanya (Gabrielle Mirabella) and Rosie (Sara Smith). The three women used to be in a girls’ group called Donna and the Dynamos; they can all still perform. In addition, there are plenty of attractive young men (Sean Patrick Grady, P. Tucker Worley, Tony Tillman, Anthony Alfaro, and others) to serve as groomsmen and catnip for the ladies.
Sophie has invited her besties as well, played by Emily Price and Olivia Ashley Reed.
But really, in a “jukebox musical,” which uses previously released popular songs, the songs are often the real stars: “Dancing Queen,” “Super Trouper,” “Honey, Honey,” “I Have a Dream,” “S.O.S.,” “Voulez-vous,” and “The Winner Takes It All,” from which Ms. Haege’s Donna draws unexpected bite and irony. And there are still more songs.
Mark Thompson’s set, while serviceable, seems a bit barren after the lush color of the movie. But c’est la vie. “Mamma Mia” is really two shows in one: The second show begins with the curtain call, when the cast and orchestra all but demand some dancing participation from the audience. If you don’t at least stand and clap, you’re a real fuddy-duddy.
I happened to observe one young teenage boy in the audience move over to where his parents (I assume) were standing and put his arms around both their waists as they all moved to the music. I know it sounds corny, but it was terribly sweet. Nothing like live theatre.
My advice is to join the party. This cast is first-rate and magnetic.
For tickets and information, visit foxtheatre.org.