The international sensation that is Mamma Mia! is playing at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre now through March 4th in all its spandex clad and youthful exuberance. Mainly about three men and lady, whose heyday was in the late 70’s, the show rocked the house, ABBA style, using the group’s biggest hits to tell the story of Sophie and her wedding wish to have her father give her away. The only problem is he could be one of three men that her mother – er, dot-dot-dotted, one fateful summer 20 years ago, on the Greek island that is now her home. Mamma Mia! won’t win any prizes for in-depth, philosophical story-telling, but its delightful mix of frothy, bouncy, romantic fun and disco/pop chart hits by ABBA make it a not-to-be missed theatrical event.
Catherine Johnson’s book threads itself loosely through the Swedish pop group’s megahits (written by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus) and though the show gets off to a slow start, the punchy, upbeat music carries the story along on a wave of collective nostalgia, romance and comedy.
Contributing to the fun is Anthony Van Laast’s uncomplicated but sassy choreography and director Phyllida Lloyd’s clever staging. The shimmering, wavy, sky and sea blue backdrop, together with the white-washed “Taverna” with turquoise-blue doors (Production design by Mark Thompson), truly set the stage for a magical wedding weekend.
The enchanting Chloe Tucker plays diminutive, bride-to-be Sophie. In a last ditch effort to find out who her father is she sends each of the potential candidates a letter, ostensibly from her mother, Donna (Kaye Tuckerman), inviting all three of them back to the island. Shock of shocks they all show up and chaos quickly ensues.
Plucky and fiercely independent Donna isn’t prepared to deal with her past, especially when she’s trying to run her tavern while simultaneously preparing for her daughter’s wedding. It helps though that her old friends and former band mates – tall, rich, thrice-married Tanya (Alison Ewing) and the shorter, rounder Rosie (Mary Callanan) – have arrived. The former back-up singers for the rockin’ Donna and the Dynamos set to work cheering up their friend with the song “Chiquitita.” It’s a little odd that Donna is never called by that nickname but no one seems to notice.
Die-hard fans of the show will also skip over the fact that Tuckerman’s lower register is barely audible in a couple of the numbers. Sound designers Andrew Bruce and Bobby Aitken may have been able to better balance the orchestra with the singer but it is a minor problem, as Tuckerman soars when in her true range.
Ewing is divine as the sexy, on-the-prowl best friend, Tanya. Along with Callanan’s personable, loveable Rosie, the two happily kick up their heels through a series of songs and bits that sparkle with humor and warmth. Their timing and use of physical comedy are Lucy and Ethel worthy. Rosie’s middle-age stiffness gets affirming nods from older audience members – as well as huge laughs from the younger set – while Tanya’s gyrations and slit skirt receive ample attention as well.
The would-be dads, Bill (John-Michael Zuerlein), Sam (Christian Whelan) and Harry (Paul Deboy) seemed to have an off night in the singing department the night I was there. They don’t suspect that each is a potential father-of-the-bride until Sophie talks with them individually. Sky, the hunky fiancée (Happy Mahaney) wonders if Sophie is more concerned with finding her dad than finding herself in a marriage, while Donna finds herself discovering old feelings for one of her former lovers. We won’t say which one!
The big bonus was an encore performance done by Donna and the Dynamos along with the entire cast at the end of the show. For one amazing moment the people in the audience were all “Dancing Queens.” “You can dance, you can jive, having the time of your life. See that girl, watch that scene, diggin’ the dancing queen.” Mamma Mia – it was fun!
Now through March 4
San Francisco Orpheum Theatre
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, including intermission
Rating: Recommended for children ages 8 and older
Photo Courtesy of Joan Marcus