Theatre review: Mamma Mia! – creating shiny, happy audiences

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If R.E.M. hadn’t recorded their hit “Shiny Happy People” eight years before the premiere of Mamma Mia!, one could probably be forgiven in believing it was written after watching an audience depart a performance of this musical based on the songs of that other acronym-based group, ABBA.

The story is relatively simple – twenty year-old Sophie invites three men to her Greek island wedding after reading her mom’s diary with the hope of finding out which one is her real father.  Adding some additional 70s flair, members of mom Donna’s old band “Donna and the Dynamos” also show up to witness the nuptials and, not surprisingly, find their outlandish disco era costumes conveniently stored under the bed in their room.  For the next two hours, hit after ABBA hit are strung together to help tell the story.

The cast of the Mamma Mia! North American Tour 2010.  Photo by Joan Marcus
Alison Ewing as Tanya with members of the 2010 Mamma Mia! North American Tour.  Photo by Joan Marcus.

As the mother-daughter duo, Kaye Tuckerman and Chloe Tucker do nice enough jobs in their roles, although Tuckerman did seem to have some issues with the lower registers in her songs last night and for a show that is mostly fun and frivolous, it seemed at odds with Tuckerman vacilating between a narrow spectrum of angry and annoyed. Tucker, in her first professional show, started off a bit shrill but gradually seemed to relax and the three potential fathers (Tony Clements, Paul Deboy and John-Michael Zuerlein) were at their best together.  But it is mom’s friends, the Dynamos to her Donna, that steal the show.

Alison Ewing and Mary Callanan embraced the silliness of the show with such gusto and enthusiasm that each separately received spontaneous applause for their antics.  With wonderful comedic timing, Ewing is perfect as the cougar who goes through husbands like sand through your fingers on a Greek beach, and Callanan easily captures the plus-sized, liberated woman who finds accidental romance.

Ewing and Callanan are the epitome of what makes Mamma Mia! such a hit with audiences, never taking themselves or the paper thin story too seriously, and having a seemingly genuine interest in making sure we have a good time.

Back in 2009, the last time Broadway Across Canada brought Mamma Mia! to Vancouver, I griped about the tenuous connection between Catherine Johnson’s story and the twenty or so ABBA hits that populate the musical.  And while my overall view of the show remains the same, what has changed is my genuine appreciation for a show that so easily creates all those shiny, happy people that leave the theatre.

3 out of 5 Stars Mamma Mia!

Music and lyrics by Benny Andersson, Bjorn Ulvaeus and Stig Anderson.  Book by Catherine Johnson.  Directed by Phyllida Lloyd.  A Broadway Across Canada presentation.  On stage at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre through August 21, 2011.  Tickets are available online.

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