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“Mama Mia” Looking Back at the Seventies Through the Music of ABBA

Broadway Sacramento continues its 2011-2012 season’s emphasis on highly popular musicals featuring pop music of the last half of the twentieth century.  Last night’s opening of the national tour of “Mamma Mia,” now in its second year, features the excellent staging of more than 20 ABBA songs, tied together by the premise of the wedding of a girl in her early 20s at her mother’s taverna on a small Greek Isle.  

“Mamma Mia” is all about the music.  The music that Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, along with Stig Anderson, created for the mega hit group ABBA, which joined Andersson and Ulvaeus with Anni-Frid Lyngstad and Agnetha Faltskog, their respective spouses at the time.  It is not surprising that mining over a decade of hit songs from a pair of songwriters who had a sharp eye for the popular culture of their time could be linked together to create a full musical.   

Catherine Johnson’s book for the play does a good job of choosing the right songs in the right order, linking each song to the next, with scenes that are often funny, sometimes angry, and often poignant.

The plot is about Sophie Sheridan, who is getting married to Sky.  She wants her dad to give her away.  The problem is that she has only narrowed it down to three men she has gleaned by riffling her mother’s desk and reading her diary from the year that Sophie was born.  Sophie explains to her two best friends that her mother, Donna, had done the “Dot Dot Dot” as her mother had described it in the diary with three different men during the right time to be her father.  Not to be deterred, Sophie, without telling anyone, invites all three to her wedding in her mother’s name!  Complications ensue.  

Stephanie Barnum (Ali), Chloe Tucker (Sophie) and Elena Marisa Flores (Lisa) with the diary.

While the songs are the heart of “Mamma Mia,” being a musical, some amount of visual spectacle is expected, the production delivers.  Central to Mark Thompson’s production design are two tall white wall-like structures, each with doors and windows that cleverly rotate to form the facade, courtyard, and several rooms of Donna’s taverna.  Layers of curtains frame the top and sides of the stage, giving the visual effect of layers of matting around a photograph come to life.

All of the set design is very much enhanced by Howard Harrison’s (“Mary Poppins”) lighting design.  It was not just the flashy disco lighting for the more danceable songs but the lighting had a strong dramatic visual impact even in the quiet moments throughout the show.  Harrison uses some amazing color choices.

The cast of the National Tour of “Mama Mia” stage design by Mark Thompson and a small part of Howard Harrison’s lighting design

“Mamma Mia” is choreographed by Anthony Van Last, MBE.  He was awarded the MBE for “His Services to Dance and Choreography” in 1999 for his acclaimed body of work on stage, much with Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice (“Bombay Dreams,” “Joseph…,” “JC Superstar”); shows for Bush, Brightman, Humphries, Crawford, and Sigfried and Roy!; and several films including “The Half Blood Prince.”

Production designer

Howard Harrison
Mark Thompson doubles as costume designer and the results are all over the place.  Now, with “Mamma Mia,” that is a good thing, whether nicely draping the dancers to enhance Van Last’s choreography or just being ABBA outrageous. This is the age of glam rock.

The setting is a small beach resort on a small Greek Isle.  While all the women are busy getting ready for the wedding, the guys all seem to spend a lot of time going to and from the beach.  The costuming gives a good look at just how athletic and handsome someone who makes a living in musical theater is. 

The performances are uniformly good. There is so much talent out there and so much competition for roles.  This production of “Mamma Mia” stars Australian native Kaye Tuckerman as Donna Sheridan. This is Donna of Donna & the Dynamos a 70s all girl trio playing nights at a club in a Greek seaside town. After the shows Donna would motor over to a small island a short distance from the mainland with one of her male fans. It was Donna’s summer of free love. Present day Donna, single parent, running a taverna and guest house her own, a wedding to put on, and guests showing up, three of which she does not particularly want to see. Tuckerman brings a fierceness in her performance of both what is sung and spoken.

Kaye Tuckerman as Donna in her Donna & the Dynamos glam best.

Chloe Tucker’s performance as daughter/bride Sophie nicely balances the innocence and desire to know who her father is with out completely coming off as callous, devious, dishonest or plain spoiled.  Tucker has several lovely solos, including the opening number “I Have a Dream.”  

Kaye Tuckerman and Chloe Tucker

Opening night, understudy Travis Taber played Sky, the fiancée, who is the stable, solid influence along with her mother for Sophie.  Taber is a good dancer/singer/actor with great stage presence  and a lanky yet athletic body he uses to perform some amazing moves.  

The three invited possible fathers, Sam, Bill, and Harry are played by Christian Whelan, John-Michael Zuerlein, and Jeff Applegate, respectively, opening night.  All sang well. 

John-Michael Zuerlein (Bill), Christian Wheelan (Sam) and Paul De Boy (Harry)

Rosie and Tanya, Donna’s back-up girls from the old days were played on Tuesday by Mary Callanan and understudy Jennifer Swiderski, provided a lot of the comic relief and received a lot of audience response.

Donna and the Dynamos: Alison Ewing (Tana), Kaye Tuckerman (Donna) and Mary Callanan (Rosie)

An especially fun part of director Phyllida Lloyd’s staging of the big production numbers is that chorus singers suddenly pop-up from all over the stage.  

A six-piece band performs the score including an extensive overture and entr’acte.  

Don’t be sad when the play is over because there is a big bonus to the show after the show.

Catch “Mamma Mia” during its one week run ending Sunday afternoon to spend an afternoon or evening enjoying a visually beautiful production driven by some of the most iconic pop music of the 1970s.

“Mamma Mia”  National Tour Production
California Musical Theatre Broadway Series at the Community Center Theater 
Tickets and more Information including a video clip



Editor’s note:  Corrections have been made to this article after publishing.

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