Review by Sean McQuaid
Dubbed “the guiltiest pleasure of the summer” by its director Adam Brazier, Mamma Mia! is a jukebox musical stitched together from cheesy old pop songs. Not exactly a recipe for high art, nor emblematic of the Festival’s stated cultural aspirations.
A little crowd-pleasing fromage on the Festival menu helps pay for said aspirations, though, and there’s fun to be had in the bargain. Mamma Mia! may be a relentlessly cheesy show, but it’s also a deliciously cheesy show filled with infectious, unforgettable songs and joyous musicality.
Swedish 70s pop super-group ABBA folded in 1982, but British playwright Catherine Johnson (aided by ex-ABBA members Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus) smooshed a bunch of ABBA’s songs together with a few lyrical tweaks in 1999, wrote a new story around them and created a smash hit musical, Mamma Mia!
My older sister had tons of ABBA on vinyl, so a sizable chunk of my childhood came with an ABBA soundtrack—and I loved it. Can’t say as it earned me heaping gobs of street cred on the Dundas school bus, but I hummed and whistled and sang those songs a lot as a lad, and my affection for them endures.
So I walked into the Homburg Theatre with a lot of preexisting good will for this show, and I was far from alone in that sentiment. When recognizable ABBA tunes emerged in the instrumental overture, some of the audience actually started cheering. Overtures don’t usually net ovations.
Johnson’s script is more inventive than most of its kind, building a coherent new story around its eclectic old songs. Said story involves free-spirited single mother Donna (Eliza-Jane Scott) and her adult daughter Sophie (Katie Kerr), who’s about to get married and wants to know which of Donna’s three old boyfriends might be her biological father: dreamy American architect Sam (Réjean Cournoyer), adventurous Australian author Bill (Stephen Guy-McGrath) or button-down British banker Harry (Cameron MacDuffee). Sophie invites all three men to her wedding and wackiness ensues.
The show unwisely pushes its smoke machine to aesthetic and respiratory extremes, but Brazier’s overall production is energetic, fast-paced and funny—there’s humour packed into every nook and cranny of the cast’s performances, both physical and verbal. An expressive, oft-hilarious Nicola Dawn Brook is the cream of that bumper comedy crop as Donna’s old friend Rosie, though an airily arch Jan Alexandra Smith also excels as wealthy divorcee Tanya.
The production moves so briskly and brightly that the sentimental, emotional aspects of the story often get shortchanged by comparison to the showier elements. Moments with real emotional punch are few, among them Scott’s powerful “The Winner Takes it All” lament and Cameron MacDuffee’s all–around fine work as Harry. He’s funny and charming throughout as a genial stiff, but he also brings heartfelt tenderness to songs like “Thank You for the Music” and especially his poignantly bittersweet “Our Last Summer” duet with Scott. The show as a whole could stand to wear a lot more of that heart on its glittery sleeve.
Kerry Gage’s choreography has its moments, often comedic (such as the cheerfully goofy “Lay All Your Love on Me”), though the darkly intense “Money, Money, Money” is the most strikingly memorable dance number; but the real star is the music, which the company does ample justice under Bob Foster’s musical direction. The strong principal singers are backed by a lush chorus and a small but mighty pit band to produce a satisfyingly big, rich sound.
That sound is at its biggest and best in a string of encores at the end, during which the show turns the disco dial up to 11. The set morphs into the sparkly love child of Studio 54 and The Price is Right, the cast changes into shiny outfits and the whole company belts out a couple of choice reprises plus the rousing “Waterloo” for good measure. It’s a beautiful Saturday night fever dream.