Music and Lyrics by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaulus
And some songs with Stig Anderson
Book by Catherine Johnson
Possibly based on the Uncredited Screenplay
for "Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell"
by Melvin Frank, Sheldon Keller and Denis Norden
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd
Wintergarden Theatre / 1634 Broadway at 50th Street / (212) 563-5444

Reviewed by David Spencer

There’s not much to discuss about "Mamma Mia!" in any sense that pertains to the activity of genuinely crafting a new musical, because this is one of those specialty deals to which the normal criteria don’t apply. It hangs a story upon pop songs of the rock group ABBA (music and lyrics by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus—the guys who gave us the score for "Chess"—and some songs with Stig Anderson)—and those members of the audience who like it would seem to dig it because of the nostalgia it evokes, and because they find amusement in seeing how the songs are inserted into the plot line—often with tongue in cheek, as often with aching sincerity, and interestingly, each approach seems to get a laugh…though I can’t say the unwanted laughs are not affectionate.

What I can say is that if you know in advance that going on a nostalgia ride of this sort is not for you, "Mamma Mia!" is likely to strike you as yet another noisy entertainment machine out of the Euro school of packaging.

Taking place in Greece (but mostly about Americans who live, or arrive there) it tells the tale of a young woman about to be married (Tina Maddigan), wanting, finally, to learn who her father is. She knows it’s one of three men her ex-rocker mom (Louise Pitre) loved, so she invites them all to the inn her mom runs for the wedding. Neglecting, of course, to tell mom herself, until they’ve arrived. Complications, as they say, ensue, involving the men (Dean Nolen, Ken Marks and David W. Keeley), mom’s ex-rocker compatriots (Judy Kaye and Karen Mason) and the fiancé (Joe Machota).

The music is loud and thumpy, allowing for a certain amount of production sizzle and not much emotional or character steak; and while the performers all acquit themselves well within the limits of their milieu, it is fascinating—and after a while a bit wearing—to watch the mugging and silent clowning with which they fill up the non-theatrical spaces between phrases, gamely trying to keep character alive against music that is so bereft of real drama. There’s not much vocal individuality to be ascertained through the rock mixing, arrangements (both vocal and instrumental) and mixing, so the best a performer gets to do in this world, really, is come off as game and attractive. The choreography by Anthony Van Laast contains some nice gimmicks, but is otherwise unremarkable of its type; and the direction by Phyllida Lloyd is no better and no worse than efficient.

The most remarkable thing about the evening, as far as I’m concerned, is that its apparent source material, the screenplay for the late ’60s comedy "Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell", by Melvin Frank, Sheldon Keller and Denis Norden (which was also the basis of the Alan Jay Lerner-Burton Lane flop musical "Carmelina") goes completely uncredited and unacknowledged. In fact, an article in the press kit has producer Judy Craymer taking credit for having devised the story, originally to develop as a film, until she decided it would be better musicalized. Not having a battery of lawyers around to protect my butt, I won’t categorically state that Ms. Craymer is being somewhat free with the truth, and that she somehow didn’t happen to come up with a remarkably similar plotline—however geographically transplanted and updated—but unless "Mrs. Campbell" itself is based on some public domain incident or property I’m not aware of, it’s one hell of a coincidence. Oh, and by the way, Ms. Craymer never did "write" that idea: she farmed it out to Catherine Johnson, who is author of "Mamma Mia!"’s book. And the libretto, like the rest of the show, functions to do what it’s supposed to. And it does. Art it ain’t.

As for you, dear reader: see "Mamma Mia!", don’t see "Mamma Mia!", you hardly need me, or any critic, to help you make an informed decision. For this one, the ingredients (except, suspiciously, that screenplay) are clearly listed on the box, and the wisest consumer advocate is that person in the mirror…

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