Book by Catherine Johnson
Music and lyrics by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd
Choreography by Anthony van Laast
Starring Louise Pitre
at the Royal Alexandra Theatre until December 31, 2000
260 King Street West/(416) 872-1212 OR 1-800-461-3333

Reviewed by Joel Greenberg

From time to time, a show emerges that defies examination, critical discussion or barometric readings. Mamma Mia! is such a show. Written to include a bunch of songs made famous by ABBA, and little more than that, the evening is dizzying in its banality. But judging by the audience reaction and the box office response that has led to an extension until the end of the year, it may be a far cry from being art–but, what the hell, the people know what they like!

Catherine Johnson has fashioned a book about a young woman whose imminent wedding makes her long to meet the father she has never known. Her mother, a free spirit of the 60's, has told her that daddy is one of three men in her long-ago past. So, daughter doing what daughters do best, she invites all three to the Greek island she calls home and where the wedding will occur, and there she intends to discover her true and rightful papa. That's about it. And to fill out the evening, mother has invited two old girlfriends who cavort with the locals and generally have a high time in the ugliest clothing seen on a stage in many a season.

Really, the entire affair is about the music of ABBA, that sensation of an era now past. Since my own daughters were too young for the music–my time with them was spent juggling Raffi, the Limelighters and assorted folk singers to soothe them to sleep–I never knew the songs that made the group so famous. Nor can I begin to understand why the aged folk in the row ahead of me were bobbing and throbbing without let-up from start to finish. The rhythms are catchy, sure, and since they are all essentially the same song, the beat is hard to miss. The lyrics are not taxing. Nor are they worth straining to hear, but if you knew these songs before you came into the theatre, the chances are pretty good that you also know the words. If you don't, you'll get them down after one or two or eight repeated refrains.

So, what can we learn from this nostalgic money-machine? I learned, and not for the first time, that pop tunes of the bubble gum variety cannot, no matter how hard you try, be forced into a story that anyone would take seriously. I mean, here we have a story with a worthwhile theme–daughter wants to know her dad, who could argue with the value of this thesis?–and we also add the story of the mother, a woman who has finally stood up for herself and has allowed herself room to live without a man to define her value as a person. Not exactly cutting edge, but worthy. And then the dialogue kicks in, almost all of it in attitudes and platitudes, but earnest and affirming.

But since this is a musical, let there be songs. And more songs. And let the songs just start and finish without particular purpose and to less effect. And let the staging and the choreography remind you of old Tom Jones variety shows that featured people like Petula Clark and Cilla Black, because that's what the audience wants. And occasionally, let the songs slow down long enough to pretend that the sentiments expressed are really human feelings belonging to the daughter, her mother or any of the three lunk-headed 'maybe dad' guys. 

For comic relief, bring on mother's aging girlfriends–one as a ditsy blonde with razor-sharp wit and the other as a cookbook writer, I think, who manages to cover her rapacious appetite until near the end of the show when she comes on strong in a too-funny comic tango-or-something-like-that number. Yes, these gals are comic inventions from a mind long gone to sleep.

Yeah, yeah, I'm sounding irascible and testy. Okay. But I laughed at the inanity without feeling badly for the performers, because it was like being present at some bizarre cultural rite. Lots of noise–the house sound system is so loud at the top of each act, that the audience is effectively numbed into submission by a genuinely painful throbbing of bass and anything else that can destroy one's normal range of hearing. No kidding. The lady beside me handed out ear plugs to at least four audience members who stuck their fingers in their ears. No kidding!

The ensemble is very young, very energetic and, for reasons I cannot begin to fathom, very keen to speak their few lines of dialogue in accents belonging to no known country or culture that I could detect. But they speak it all with such glee and such unabashed confidence, you begin to wonder what they know that you don't. (Maybe there actually is a country where the French dialect is so obnoxious and so warped that legions of radicals are even now beginning to demand nothing less than sovereignty association.)

But–and I'm about to get serious here, so bear with me as I slow down–there is one saving grace. And it's a big one, and her name is Louise Pitre. Now, this woman has been acting and singing her way into our theatrical experiences for a long time. Even before she starred in the first Canadian production of Les Miserables, long before that, she was a voice to take seriously. And I would guess that I have seen her in about a dozen different shows–some original and some standard issue.

For my taste, Pitre has always tried too hard to make her points, sung too loud and far too long to show off a power that is both dazzling and, ultimately, exhausting. Her style of presentation combined desperation and a very cool, drop-dead attitude that appealed to many. And whenever I saw her, as much as I understood the extreme talent she owned and flaunted, I was never captivated or, frankly, very interested in what she was saying or doing. But not any longer.

Her performance is so easy, so relaxed and so much fun, that you cannot wait for her next entrance. And the very good news is that she is onstage almost throughout. She doesn't try to act, as most everyone else does with little purpose, and she simply throws it all away. But she does it with style, tremendous intelligence and, biggest surprise of all, enormous warmth and generosity.

Musically, this is not the best material she's ever had, but perhaps because the level is so undemanding the results are that much greater. She doesn't have to interpret the way she might with Piaf or Sondheim, and she is able to just let it rip without having to carry the story through the lyric. It's a soft rock concert with dialogue as filler between the songs and the grinning ensemble to sing between her costume changes.

Elsewhere onstage, Mary Ellen Mahoney, as the ditsy blonde friend, takes advantage of her height to get lots of laughs. Mahoney has perfected the dry zinger and she has added several variations to her acerbic delivery. Miku Graham, as one of the daughter's myriad friends, is charming and can actually sustain a British dialect. Sal Scozzari, as a horny dialect-riddled native of no-known-identity, has been encouraged to chew whatever scenery he can get his teeth around. Gary P. Lynch, as one of the father candidates and the man who wins mother's heart by final curtain, hasn't the voice to deliver the songs he is required to perform.

Perhaps, with the great success of this show in London and now in Toronto, we can anticipate foreign language versions soon–Oy Gevalt! or Zut Alors! or Hocus Pocus! It could happen. After all, who would have thought that a bunch of poems about cats, performed by people pretending to be cats would make anyone rich? And who might have envisioned a comeback of 70's hideousness with the house system cranked up to full, belching Dancing Queen fifty or sixty times without stopping. I ask you.

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