Monday, November 9, 2009

Mama Mia! live theater review

           A musical that has an exclamation point automatically inserted into the title better be worthy of so much excitement.  Hip moves, witty lines and tremendous tunes are necessary before this punctuation can be considered seriously.
            Mamma Mia!, directed by Phyllida Lloyd, without a doubt lives up to its title.
            Set on a Greek island stuck in the 1970s, Mamma Mia! begins with the wedding of Sophie Sheridan (Liana Hunt), a young girl raised by her single mom Donna (Michelle Dawson), the owner of a poorly-performing local inn.  
            Unhappy with her unanswered parentage and wanting to find her real father before her big day, Sophie tempts the fates by inviting all three possible prospects to her wedding—without the knowledge of their old lover, her mother.  Set to the infamous tunes of ABBA, the musical chronicles Sophie’s journey to find her father and Donna’s struggle to come to terms with her past.
            The advertising slogans are true: It’s “a trip down the aisle you’ll never forget.”
            Lloyd has some big shoes to fill after Mamma Mia! The Movie (2008) became the highest grossing musical film worldwide.
            A stunning film with an abundance of both big names and big musical numbers, the movie has undoubtedly painted the realm of Mamma Mia! with a rose-colored film.  An audience seeing the musical performed on stage has probably seen the movie first—which may or may not bode well for the live performance in front of them. 
            Overseeing the production of both the film and the musical, producer Judy Craymer makes the transition seamless for both die-hard movie fans as well as theatergoers.  And while no one can really top Meryl Streep, Lloyd has nothing to worry about with her tour of Mamma Mia!
            The first glimpse of Sophie—standing by the mailbox about to send off her metaphorical paternity tests—sets the scene on the Greek island. Wavy, bright blue backdrop and legs frame two white walls built to resemble the beautiful sun-washed houses on the Mediterranean. 
            Designed by Mark Thompson, the two walls revolve throughout the play, creating several different set possibilities ranging from the front door of the inn, the stage for Donna and The Dynamos and the meeting place for Sophie and her fathers. 
            Donna and Sophie make an excellent mother-daughter team.  Their light-hearted banter and smiles are only topped by Donna’s two best friends flown in exclusively for the wedding; Tanya (Rachael Tyler) and Rosie (Kittra Wynn Coomer) offer a more sophisticated view to life on the beach—until they drag out their feather boas, hairdryer mics and sexual innuendos to support Donna when her past life comes crashing through the window. 
            The 70s seem to be one of those decades that no one wants to emulate, but everyone still starts cheering whenever someone busts out some great disco. Such is the case in Mamma Mia! Although sometimes too over-exaggerated, moves from the days of flower power are front and center in Mamma Mia!, and the timeless choreography still makes you want to get up and strike an Elvis pose during “Dancing Queen.”
            Truth be told, the choreography in Mamma Mia! is not very technically advanced.  The dancers aren’t exactly popping out the pirouettes or the high-flying tricks you expect in dynamic Broadway choreography. But even in spite of this missing feature, the show certainly has enough flair of its own.  Choreographer Anthony Van Laast successfully channels all the hip moves from the 1970s—even though they nearly break the hips of Donna, Rosie and Tanya.
            The cast sings several songs to the caliber of ABBA, if not better.  Benny Anderson and Bjorn Ulvaeus (music and lyrics) cleverly twist the lyrics to fit the story line but still retain much of the original ABBA flair.  An instant crowd favorite and the title track, “Mamma Mia” describes the feeling Dawson gets while darting between her former lovers Harry Bright (Michael Aaron Lindner), Bill Austin (Martin Kildare) and the always-suave Sam Carmichael (John Hemphill).  Amidst flashbacks of their intimate times together, Donna “cant resist ‘cha,” but at the same time can’t let the unexpected guests know “just how much I missed ‘cha.”
            The most delightful scene, thankfully reproduced in every medium available for Mamma Mia!, is “Lay All Your Love On Me.”  Without a doubt, the swarm of beach boys dancing in wet suits and flippers steal the show not only in vocal talent, but also in sheer comedic timing.
            Perhaps the only scene to be a let-down compared to Mamma Mia! The Movie is “Dancing Queen.” Used in the movie to show female solidarity, the musical is highly disappointing without a dock laden with old Greek women “digging the Dancing Queen.” The live performance is largely a solo for Dawson.  With the band of women sadly missing on the stage, the only thing left to focus on is Dawson’s singing—which doesn’t always make for a good compromise.
            Despite this one flaw, Mamma Mia! still lives up to the audience’s expectations. 
            Hip choreography? Check. ABBA music? Check. Awesome lyrics because of said ABBA music? Double check.
            Mamma Mia! certainly deserves the exclamation point. 

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