BWW Review: MAMMA MIA Tries to Regain Its Youth at Stage West
Mamma Mia is one of those contemporary classics. It's a guaranteed hit anywhere you play it because the songs as recognizable, the story is fun and playful, and it is at once heartfelt and outlandish. It doesn't take much to have a fun night out with ABBA. But that doesn't mean you can ignore the fact that the dancing is action-packed, the songs have a sincere meaning behind them and Mamma Mia is a well-known musical with expectation in its performance more than most shows.
Admittedly, I came in to Stage West's production with the acceptable knowledge that I would be moved and entertained. Sadly, I was a little underwhelmed with both.
Taking some of ABBA's greatest hits, putting them in a blender, and producing a two-act musical, Mamma Mia tells the story of Sophie, a daughter so desperate to find out who her father is before her wedding that she invites all three candidates, and Donna, her single mother trying to keep the entire world from crumbling around her. There's also a really fun exploration of dynamics in threes (Sophie and her two best friends, Donna and her two best friends, Sky and his two best friends, and of course, Sophie's three dads), as well the understanding that youth is more about freedom and self-expression than age. And of course: you're only happy without a man until the right one comes along. But that discussion is for another time.
The iconic music and the bond between mother and daughter are at the forefront of this story. But when other aspects of the production fall flat, those two are not always enough to save the show.
Before any actors step onto the stage, the show begins with an overture that is meant to introduce the audience to the world they're about to enter. What we received was a rocking band (led by Konrad Pluta) and a light show that felt so out of place. The stage is set up to be the open courtyard of Donna's inn and a few moving pieces can take us to other places around the island but the one staying piece is the projection wall in the back. This wall jumped back and forth between displaying various scenic horizons showing the audience where they were, and a sharp, one note colour that immediately took me out of the scene; a stark, constant reminder that I was not on a Greek holiday. And the lighting (designed by David Smith) proved to be a constant distraction. I could not understand the intention behind many of his choices.
On the topic of choices, I was put off by many of the decisions made by Brittany Clough, playing bride-to-be Sophie. The first thing that struck me was how much she was pushing the tempo in every one of her solos. Forgetting that ABBA is memorable and demands to be sung-along to, it became clear that Clough wasn't listening to the band and I don't know what was causing that disconnect between the two. Beyond that, her performance was too enthusiastic and didn't feel genuine. I wanted her to slow down just enough so she could show me why she was running away, or freaking out, or crying.
Compared to her mother, Donna, played by Jane Cooke, who came off as very grounded and honest. Cooke's performance was anything but melodramatic and yet I felt all the strong emotions that existed inside her character. I thought a lot of her movement seemed rehearsed; like she didn't always understand why she was crossing the stage but she did it. But when she stood and sang out, I was blown away.
As a trio, I thought the "Dads" were spot-on. Although Stuart Dowling's Australian accent was not consistent in the adventurous Bill, I loved his willingness to go full out and be just that little bit crazy. Jay Davis' performance as Sam was angrier than I expected, but his honesty when talking to Donna and instant paternal bond with Sophie was beautiful. J. Sean Elliot as the surprisingly charming Harry "Headbanger" stole my heart whenever I looked over during "Gimme, Gimmie, Gimme", and watched him understand exactly how his character would dance: awkwardly.
I was so impressed with all of the big choreography in the show. All of the large, group numbers (choreographed by Stephan Dickson) that seemed to be one marathon after another, showed a good use of the space and a wonderful balance between seamless storytelling, and dancing because music demands to be danced to in a big, outrageous way. Songs like "Voulez-Vous" and "Does Your Mother Know" were well executed, thanks in no small part to the energetic ensemble who kept the up with the rollercoaster flow of the show. "Under Attack" was approached in a way that I wasn't expecting but the only thing I disliked was when the ensemble were tossing Sophie into the air. The Stage West theatre is not a high-ceilinged space and regardless of how safe the actress actually was - which I can't say - I found it distracting as an audience member to worry about how close she was getting to the grid and once again, it took me out of the story. I was no longer invested in Sophie's emotional distress and I was solely concerned about whether they were about to toss their leading actress into the rafters.
One dynamic trio that left me wanting, was sadly "Donna and the Dynamos". The three best friends who stood by each other for so long but briefly lost touch and are now reminiscing about their youth as one of their daughters is about to get married. Their bond is one of the strongest story elements. Time and space cannot stop a heart - a concept that applies to romantic and platonic love in this show - but I didn't feel it from these three actresses and I wish I could pinpoint what it was. When they were off on their own, they came alive. "Does Your Mother Know" (performed by Alison SomerVille) and "Take a Chance on Me" (by Susan Johnston Collins) were both funny and energetic, but something about the three of them together was not enough to make me believe that they were lifelong friends.
There were several times during the show that I found myself questioning the character's actions and their intentions. I had a very difficult time understanding Phil Nero's comedic intention. Mamma Mia is built to be slightly crazy and tongue-in-cheek funny but the timing and integration into the scene is what makes it more than just joking to get a laugh. I couldn't get a handle on where the audience was in connection to the story. Were we a part of it; brought into the scene by character asides and literal winks and nods in our direction? Or were we voyeurs into the lives of these characters who happen to be funny and joke around with each other? Without knowing Nero's intention, I found myself lost between the two, sometimes brought in on the joke and sometimes locked out and never really knowing where I stood.
The music of this show is well-known, to say the least. All you have to do is play the first few notes of the titular song and audiences will start dancing along. Pluta's band created an excellent instrumental rendition but what we heard from the actors didn't always live up to the expectation they set. Not their singing, mind you, but the balance of microphones and quality of sound. Especially because the audience is so familiar with the melodies, it was off-putting to so often hear the harmony or backstage voices overpowering the sound. I now know the harmony line for "S.O.S." but I missed out on hearing that familiar melody.
I found myself generally disappointed by much of this production. As I continue to say, Mamma Mia is a guaranteed hit but it's not because of the actors or designers of any production, it's because of Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus and the fun and fancy-free world they've created with their music. It then becomes the job of those actors and designers to build a believable version of that world. And I don't think that Stage West achieved that goal as collective. Yes, there were elements and performances that I enjoyed - and the ensemble deserves much more praise than I've given here - but as a whole, I think this production fell flat.
Photos by John Watson Photography