Since its debut in 1999 at London’s Prince Edward Theatre, the Abba musical Mamma Mia! is one of the stage’s most unlikely success stories. Catherine Johnson’s lighter-than-air storyline may seem like nothing more than a pretext to present a “greatest hits” revue of the Swedish pop group’s material, but the secret lies in the performances and the quality of the staging. With its enthusiastic cast and fine musicianship, the Public Theater’s polished production gives the story the required zing.
20-year-old Sophie (Jessi Little) lives on the Greek island of Kalokairi with her mother, Donna (Megan DeYoung), who was the former leader of a girl group called Donna and the Dynamos, but who settled down to single motherhood and life as an innkeeper. Sophie is getting ready to marry Sky (Nick Szoeke), the man she adores, but she wants to find out who her real father is so he can come to her wedding and walk her down the aisle. On a whim, she sneaks a peek in her mother’s diary and discovers that Donna had trysts with three different men 21 years earlier. She figures that one of them must be her father, so she decides to invite them all to her wedding, hoping she’ll be able to recognize him on sight. Donna’s former groupmates, Tanya (Beth Erwin), and Rosie (Briane Green) arrive for a boisterous reunion, and Donna is nonplussed to see all three of her former paramours show up as well. The predictable confusion ensues, but Sophie is determined to get it all straightened out before she takes her vows.
As the show’s director, Ken Urso, and its choreographer, Courtnie Mercer, mentioned in an interview with ArtScene SA, Mamma Mia! is really a party after all, and that’s how they approach the material. Mercer has created an incredible amount of original dance, and Urso keeps all the performances bright and humorous. Andrew Hendley’s six-piece orchestra is also amazing, faithfully recreating that trademark Abba sound with a handful of instruments. Adding another luxurious layer to the music are the ensemble’s background vocals. The popular songs by Benny Andersson, Bjorn Ulvaeus and Stig Anderson are all here, including “Dancing Queen,” Take a Chance on Me,” “The Winner Takes It All,” “The Name of the Game,” “Super Trouper,” and, of course, the ubiquitous title tune. Jeremy Whittington’s set, Noel Jordan’s costumes and Dan “Doc” Heggem’s lighting design are all appropriately colorful, in keeping with the overall lightness of the piece.
The leads are charismatic and provide strong vocals. DeYoung, Green and Erwin are fun as Donna and her group of self-admitted over-the-hill rockers, as are Aaron Ely, Miguel Ochoa and James Welch as Bill, Sam and Harry, Sophie’s would-be fathers. Also fine are Little and Szoeke as the young lovers.
Mamma Mia! plays Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. at the Public Theater of San Antonio, 800 W. Ashby Place. Tickets can be obtained online or by calling the box office at (210) 733-7258.
Photos by Siggi Ragnar.