It seemed more like attending some grand and joyous party than it did attending a run-of-the-mill musical. The fun began right in the elevator that took my guest and me up to the orchestra level of the Sarofim Theatre in Houston’s Hobby Center for the Performing Arts. We were joined in that elevator by about a half-dozen chattering young women who were giddy with delight as they prepared to attend the current Broadway tour of the perennial favorite, MAMMA MIA. They were undoubtedly as guilty as I of having seen the show before, and probably more than once. It’s that kind of show, and people keep coming back for more. Not because it is a great theatre piece, but just because it is so doggone much fun. I knew before that short elevator ride ended, that these women would all be on their feet as Dancing Queens before the final curtain.
Written by British playwright Catherine Johnson, the plot is cleverly constructed around the popular songs of the band, ABBA, and composed by two former members of that band, Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus. (Stig Anderson collaborated in composing some of the show’s songs, and Catherine Johnson wrote the book). The original London production opened in April of 1999, and the Broadway production opened just weeks after the terror of 9/11 in 2001. The show became such a Broadway staple that the marquee even found its way onto the Broadway masthead photo atop this critic’s website at ThePeoplesCritic.com.
Phyllida Lloyd brightly directs this current and very successful national tour of a show familiar to many from the popular screen version starring Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnon. But the high-energy excitement Mamma Mia brings to the live stage could never be fully captured on film. The forgivably far-fetched plot surrounds a single mother named Donna (Georgia Kate Haege), and her daughter, Sophie (Chelsea Williams), who live on the lovely Greek Island of Calicos where Donna operates a taverna guest house. Twenty year-old Sophie is about to be married to her beloved Sky (Eric Presnall) and longs to know which of the three men her mother had flings with years before could be her real father. In hopes of solving that mystery she has secretly invited the three to her forthcoming wedding. When the gents arrive (Andrew Tebo as Harry, Michael Colavolpe as Bill, and Jeff Drushal as Sam) the real fun gets underway. Adding to the fun is the arrival of Donna’s feisty old girlfriends, Tanya (Bailey Purvis), and Rosie (Sarah Smith). Years before the three gals had their own singing group known as, “Donna & the Dynamos.” Before show’s end they unite for some spectacular numbers.
As in previous touring productions that I have reviewed, the action plays out on what I found to be a simple, yet very appealing set, depicting the tavern’s Mediterranean-style stucco buildings, capped by the lacy silhouette of a tree and an occasional rising moon. The secret of this successful simplicity rests with the ever-changing and brilliant pastel lighting designs of Howard Harrison, which give an airy and romantic look to many scenes, and electrifying excitement to others like the explosive song, “Money, Money, Money.” With such popular hits as, “Dancing Queen”, “Chiquitita, ” “Super Trouper,” “Take A Chance On Me,” “Voulez-Vous,” “SOS,” “Thank You for the Music,” “The Winner Takes It All”, and the tender, “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” the fun-filled and lovely tunes overshadow the twists and turns of the convoluted plot. But as Sophie’s wedding day approaches, there are enough mysteries and surprises to keep it all interesting while the dynamic voices in the cast add to the magic. Miss Haege brings fierce vocal power to her numbers and Miss William’s voice is pure perfection. While there are many fine voices in this exuberant cast, these two women stand out as they anchor the production with exceptional vocal brilliance that contrasts considerably with the low-key male leads playing Sophie’s possible fathers. With consistently sweet harmonies, the Ensemble cast support is strong throughout. I was briefly concerned during an embarrassingly over-amplified Overture that was annoyingly loud, but happily that Opening Night problem was quickly corrected as the rest of the show proceeded smoothly with not only good sound levels for music, but also for dialogue that could be clearly heard.
The flashy choreography of Anthony Van Laast is ever-present as a highlight of the production, and don’t miss the hilarious flipper-footed dance of the scuba divers. And speaking of “don’t miss,” word must have gotten around town about the wonderful encore numbers this show offers following the bows and curtain calls. The usual rude race to the exits and parking lots did not occur, and the happy audience seemed delighted to remain standing and dancing during the dazzling final bonus numbers that made one wonder just where these young performers seem to find such boundless energy.
The full cast again explodes on stage, (with the lead performers now suddenly dressed in the glitz of ABBA-style costumes), and there follows another twenty minutes of joyful encores that included, “Dancing Queen,” and, of course, “Mamma Mia.” I’m sure that somewhere in that room my friends from the elevator were having a ball.
MAMMA MIA continues at the Hobby Center with performances tonight & Saturday at 8pm, matinees both Saturday & Sunday at 2pm, and a final performance at 7:30 this coming Sunday night, April 19th. To capture any of the few remaining tickets 800-952-6560 or visit the website at www.BroadwayAtTheHobbyCenter.com. Those who miss out may want to have a peek at the tour video available at: