I was eating a veggie burger and chatting with two fellow journalists when the subject of guilty-pleasure music came up. This was a few weeks ago and for a moment, I debated whether I should reveal the truth. But eventually, I summoned the courage to say it. “I wouldn’t call it a guilty pleasure because I don’t feel guilty about it,” I told them, “but I love ABBA.”
I expected to be tossed from the room with French fries shoved up my nostrils. That didn’t happen. Instead, one of my friends simply said something along the lines of, “If you’re going to go for cheese, you may as well go for the king of cheese.”
That sums it up for me. ABBA, the Swedish pop group of chart-topping, Broadway-busting fame, is fueled by giddy electronic beats and a feverish sentimentality that makes their songs easy to mock—and makes them a giddy joy. It’s addictive music, but it’s more than that. It’s a sound that reverberates with contagious glee and romance, making you think of swirling disco balls, heartache, Molly Ringwald, and prom night.
That delicious cocktail has been whipped up expertly in Broadway Rose’s shiny new production of Mamma Mia!, the 1999 ABBA-filled musical that became a theatrical and cinematic blockbuster. Directed by Lyn Cramer, it lacks some of the glorious insanity that made the 2008 film adaptation starring Meryl Streep a treat. Yet the production’s brand of bravado is the kind that not only inspires standing ovations, but makes you want to leap out of your seat and onto the stage.
After the play’s serene opening, that is. On an almost comically gorgeous Greek isle that lies beneath a plum-colored sky, a young woman sings. Her name is Sophie (Sophie Moshofsky) and she is preparing to marry her fiancée, Sky (Aaron Stewart), under the watchful eye of her mother, Donna (Peggy Taphorn).
Sophie wants her father to give her away at the ceremony, but has no idea who he is (Donna, for the purposes of the plot, is both a single mother and a devout secret-keeper). So Sophie entreats three of Donna’s former paramours to join the festivities: the fussy Harry (a terrific Matthew H. Curl), the strapping Bill (Joey Klei) and the soulful Sam (Andrew Maldarelli), hoping that one of them is her dad. The invitation leads to shenanigans and self-discovery—all of which is filtered through ABBA hits like “Dancing Queen,” “Super Trouper” and, of course, “Mamma Mia.”
Cramer clearly understands that this melodramatic narrative works best when it is at least partly milked for pure, unadulterated silliness. After a few fairly sedate musical numbers, the play cuts loose with “Lay All Your Love On Me” (in which a pack of Sky’s pals dance in flippers that clack on stage to the pulse of the music) and “Under Attack” (a comedic nightmare that finds Sophie surrounded by men in scuba gear and her three potential fathers, who are dressed in wonderfully ludicrous, sparkle-covered tuxedos).
There is a serious side to Mamma Mia!, however—one that Cramer and her cast aren’t afraid of. The throbbing heart of the play is the story of a parent and a child realizing that one era of their relationship is at an end—and in the process, reaffirming their love for each other. You feel that in the tender exchanges between Moshofsky and Taphorn, who are thoroughly convincing as mother and daughter. “I’m so proud of you, Mom,” Sophie tells Donna in a particularly vulnerable moment. I believed her.
Less engaging are musical numbers like “Honey, Honey” and “The Winner Takes It All” where the choreography is restrained and the chorus is offstage. These scenes briefly sap the play’s energy, and I couldn’t help thinking that perhaps this production should have embraced the kinetic verve that made the Mamma Mia! movie a loud, epic and proudly garish spectacle.
And yet Broadway Rose’s production has enough magnificent excess that on opening night, the audience began clapping ebulliently along with the music. I was with them, and I found the songs coursing pleasurably through my mind days later, reminding me that when it comes to music and theater, not all cheeses are created equal.
Some may be Velveeta. This, my friends, is Gouda.
Broadway Rose’s Mamma Mia! continues through July 22. Tickets and scheduling information at www.broadwayrose.org.