There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with jukebox musicals. Just because the music isn’t original for the show doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be staged. So the reappearance of Mamma Mia!, now showing for the first time at the Muny, shouldn’t be sneered at without some examination.
Audiences love many of the jukebox musicals, although some of them have disappeared without a trace. Did you ever hear of Hot Feet? Didn’t think so. But they’re good for the arts – they bring in patrons that otherwise might not see live theater and they give work to countless craftspersons and artists. (Yes, this is the pink zinfandel argument; it may not be great wine but it paid winemakers’ salaries and lots of other people’s. Besides, it kept the zinfandel vines in the ground so we can enjoy serious zin from 75- and even 100-year old vines.)
So here we are with the second of ABBA’s musicals. (What? You never heard of Abbacadabra?) And it’s still great fun, I admit, with lots of songs that range from vaguely familiar to the background music of one’s life, depending, probably, on one’s age, or that of one’s children.
Donna Sheridan (Julia Murney) quit singing with her girl group when she became pregnant while they were in Greece. She stayed there, raising her daughter Sophie (Brittany Zeinstra) alone, and now Sophie is getting married at the age of 20. Donna has refused to discuss Sophie’s father with her, but the truth is, she isn’t sure herself who he is. Sophie starts to investigate, finds three candidates, and invites them to her wedding.
All three? Yes. Because she will just know which one is her Dad. Sophie is more of an adolescent than seems to be commonly acknowledged. There’s a considerable lack of insight and lack of impulse control in her. Zeinstra shows this off really well, to the point where one wants to shake her at times. Murney’s Donna is tired, stressed and not really seeming to get into this wedding stuff much at all.
The dads are Bill Austin (Mike McGowan), the Australian adventure travel writer, one of those hearty Steve Irwin types, Harry Bright (Ben Nordstrom), the Brit banker who once was a headbanger, and Sam Carmichael (Justin Guarini), the American she swooned over but who left her because he was engaged already. Guarini has good chemistry with Murney, with their bickering at his return, and all three guys step up to the plate in their songs. Nordstrom’s morphing from impoverished musician into buttoned-up finance guy is particularly fun. Donna’s sidekicks and former band members, played by Ann Harada and Jenny Powers, excel with the particularly juicy material the roles give them.
But here’s a musical that doesn’t – quite – translate to the big Muny stage as well as it would in a smaller venue. Yes, the dance numbers are mostly great, but it does suffer from a swim fin deficit. The amazing sound system makes sure everyone hears everything, and the orchestra is always reliable. Maybe it’s because this is more story-oriented than most of its ilk, details are lost because of the scale. I’m not sure why this happens with this show and not, say, last week’s Young Frankenstein. But it seems noticeable to someone who’s seen it more than once. The show’s many fans will surely be happy, I think, but for the uninitiated it may not be the best introduction to the work.
Through July 28