Mamma Mia!, the 1999 musical squeezed from Abba pop tunes, is often compared to cupcakes and donuts with artificial sprinkles. It’s not art, but millions claim it makes them feel good, even decades younger, and they can’t get enough of it.
In revival at Moonlight Amphitheatre (directed and choreographed by John Vaughan), Mamma Mia! is a sparkling show and communal karaoke. Because it’s an outdoor venue where picnics and libations are encouraged, graying couples can let loose and relive the 70s. Whole families feel free to sing along.
Those who never bought an Abba album will recognize bouncy songs such as “Dancing Queen,” “S.O.S,” and the title tune “Mamma Mia.” While Jersey Boys, the musical telling of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, may be the best jukebox musical, Mamma Mia! is one of the most successful and surely the most dorky. It has no calories and if you stop humming along, you’ll realize it’s a clever farce in disguise.
Katie Sapper plays the scheming ingénue, 20 year-old Sophie about to be married. Her high voice makes her sound younger in dialogue and the song “I Have a Dream.” She dreams of having her father give her away, but she doesn’t know him. After snooping through her mother’s diary, she learns that her dad could be one of three men. She secretly invites them all to her wedding on a Greek island. What could go wrong?
Moonlight favorite Bets Malone is marvelous as Donna, her independent single mom. She runs a taverna and knows how to use a drill. An unwavering feminist, she has a powerful voice and keen comic timing. Just when we think she’s a believable character in blue jeans, she says she doesn’t want to talk and belts out an Abba song that doesn’t seem to fit the story.
The musical about the real Abba group would be more interesting. The Swedish pop group won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1974 for “Waterloo.” Their catchy tunes inspired disco, the Bee Gees, and few can top their bizarre costumes and videos.
The string of Abba songs in the musical tell short stories but don’t align here. They are jolting because the writer, Catherine Johnson, cobbled a thin story together around lyrics and music by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus of Abba. It’s a stretch to follow why Donna sings “The Winner Takes it All.” And we squirm when her old friends Tanya (Barbara Schoenhofer) and Rosie jump on her bed while singing “Chiquitita.” In their youth, the three were in a rock band, so why this ballad?
We laugh and cheer when Tanya and Rosie show their seductive sides. But then we wonder if it’s all a spoof, especially when Donna and the Dynamos perform in purple spandex for Sophie’s bridal party.
Nicholas Sloan is adorable as Sky the hunky young groom. Robert Townsend plays Sam the silvery architect with sincerity. Jason W. Webb plays Harry the Brit with a secret. Lance Arthur Smith the Aussie fights off the affection of Rosie with a smile.
This is a strong cast with strong voices and performances, despite a thin script. The ensemble looks and sounds terrific when peeking over the back wall. They’re supposed to be Greek locals, but look like Californians. There are moments when you imagine this destination wedding could be switched to Ocean Beach, or Catalina. A thrilling dance section has handsome men in swim garb high kicking their flippers. Young locals spin and pony hop and snappy gestures beckon us to join the fun.
This is Moonlights 38th season of excellent Broadway under the stars. All shows sold out, before opening night, so they’ve added another one on June 26. (Some will wonder why, but a sequel to the Mamma Mia! movie is set for release in July, starring Cher as the Grandma). For those who crave Abba pop songs and sugary romances akin to the Lifetime channel, this is your summer of Abba-binging.
The Mamma Mia! band, conducted by Lyndon Pugeda, cranks out the feel-good hits, by the quartet that ruled the international music market during the golden age of disco. Don’t miss the bows and triple encores. On opening night the happy crowd (including a man with two broken arms) went wild for “Waterloo.” The romance, the dancing, singing, and a wedding twist are outdone by the final eye-popping spandex and a dozen twinkling disco balls.
Mamma Mia! runs through June 30. Run time is 2.5 hours. Moonlight Stage Productions