New York theatre critics are such bitches! I used to ignore theatre reviews for any given show until I’d written my own, but with a high-profile show like Mamma Mia I inevitably got wind of what my colleagues are saying—and their negativity about Mamma Mia genuinely surprised me. From the concept alone, it’s clear that this ABBA-mad musical is a piece of fluff, a bit of light fun, and that’s the standard by which it should be judged. By this standard, it’s pretty accomplished.
As a matter of fact, I was struck by how often these songs tapped an emotional depth I had no reason to expect. Watching Mamma Mia I was reminded that Pete Townshend once commented that ABBA was more rock and rock than, for instance, Paul McCartney or Little Richard. If I remember correctly, Townshend argued that the heart of rock and roll is story songs that transform pain into joy, or even ecstasy, and ABBA did that very well in songs like “Knowing Me, Knowing You” and “The Winner Takes It All.” ABBA’s songs already tell little stories, and Mamma Mia weaves them into a larger one.
I must admit that the big story is perhaps less than the sum of its moments and that the book is awkwardly written and directed. Sophie is about to get married, and she wants her father to walk her down the aisle. Problem is, her mother Donna was a pop star and a bit of a wild woman, so there are three candidates for “daddy.” Sophie invites all three to her wedding without telling “Mamma” and thus sets the plot, such as it is, in motion.
Director Phyllidia Lloyd, a Brit, suffer from a problem endemic to British directors who try directing musicals: not enough experience working with contemporary musicals. In Lloyd’s case, this means that’s she’s directed the actors to overact where they should be low-key, making way too much of throwaway moments.
Okay, that was kinda mean (hey, I am New York theatre critic, after all!). That said, whenever the clunky dialogue switches to Andersson and Ulvaeus tunage, it’s always delivered with that kind of delirious joy Townshend was talk about.
I’m sure you’ve heard about the ample male flesh on display, and it’s all true. There’s even a semi-nude moment given to Sophie’s fiancée Skye, and yes, it’s worth taking your opera glasses for. The last word: As far as the Winter Garden is concerned, this is a huge improvement over Cats.
For tickets click here.