Destination Wedding in ABBA-Land: Mamma Mia! at the Hippodrome

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Destination Wedding in ABBA-Land: Mamma Mia! at the Hippodrome

Sarah Smith, Betsy Padamonsky and Cashelle Butler

Sarah Smith, Betsy Padamonsky and Cashelle Butler

Posted on BroadwayWorld.com January 14, 2017

That MAMMA MIA! is a hit of unbelievable proportions is beyond cavil. There have been 50 productions; the show was the among the ten longest-running Broadway shows ever (2001 to 2015). The current national tour (spoken of as a “farewell tour” though it appears to be more the last six months of a three-year excursion) is in the midst of a four-performance stand at Baltimore’s Hippodrome. On opening night, you could certainly take in the reasons for all that success: the catchy ABBA songs, the comedy verging at times on slapstick, the slightly naughty plot setup (a mother whose wild-child youth has presented her daughter with three plausible candidates for a father) – but not so risqué that it discouraged the attendance of a host of teen and pre-teen girls with their parents, and of course the curtain calls which have become something of a cult event. These features will probably float anyone’s boat – and they did mine.

All the same, let’s be honest: from a formal point of view, this show is kind of a mess. There are essentially three ways of doing a jukebox musical (a show that uses a pre-existing songbook, typically, as here, the oeuvre of a particular pop performer or group). You can embed the songs in the history of the performer who originated them (Jersey Boys or Beautiful), you can present a revue which pretty much eschews a dramatic framework (Smokey Joe’s Café or Rain), or you can create a new story which somehow incorporates the music (We Will Rock You or Rock of Ages). The third course of action, adopted here, is the most difficult because the lyrics which support a pop song are seldom well-adapted to the stage. There’s a well-known taxonomy and progression of song types in most musicals (the I Am/I Want Song, the Conditional Love Song, the Eleven O’Clock Song, etc.) which are frequently tough to dig out of a songbook – and many of which aren’t found here. Add to that that the stories told in existing songs may not match up with a consistent plot, and that even if they do, they are unlikely to be written in a way to advance the plot the way songs in musicals naturally do.

MAMMA MIA! deals with this problem, essentially, by not dealing with it. The nominal story, about what amounts to a destination wedding on a Greek isle, is hardly taken seriously much of the time. Many of the songs are barely congruent with the plot at all. Thus the song SOS puts lines in the mouths of both the previously naughty mom, Donna (Betsy Padamonsky) and Sam, one of her three former lovers whom she hasn’t seen in 20 years (Shai Yammanee), that relate the stresses in a current relationship, not one that hasn’t existed for two decades (“When you’re gone, how can I even try to go on?”), and Knowing Me, Knowing You, a breakup song, is awkwardly jimmied into a slot where Sam is giving marital advice to his putative daughter Sophia (Lizzie Markson) on the verge of her wedding. And then there is the issue with the basic sonic palette ABBA used, a tight choral sound surrounding solos; in order to capitalize on that sound, the chorus, frequently offstage, is called on to participate in almost every song, militating against the more typical musical comedy strategy of varying between choral numbers and solos, duets, trios, etc. The plot is just there to assemble a series of excuses for the songs, plus some comic bits and some dancing.

In short, MAMMA MIA! is actually more of a revue than a story-driven show, despite sporting the accouterments of the latter. And none of that mattered a damn to the faithful gathered at the Hippodrome last night. They got what they came for, especially in the curtain call segment where the mask of a story dropped altogether, and the cast just performed three ABBA songs including the inevitable one, Waterloo, which did not feature in the show that had preceded it, and so did not even qualify as a reprise. But no one left the auditorium; everyone was on their feet, clapping and singing along.

If this is your thing, and you can still score tickets (a big if), and if you really hurry, you can catch the fun too. You can always find something more dramatically nutritious next time.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photograph

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