‘Mamma Mia!’ adds new dimension to ABBA’s hits

by MIKE CHAIKEN

EDITIONS EDITOR

There’s Shakespeare on the written page. And there’s Shakespeare in performance.

Although Shakespeare’s work is great in text, you can get a grasp of its poetry and the plot, it doesn’t truly come alive until it’s on stage. A great director blessed with great actors can help the audience understand what’s unfolding in the plot—and the wonderful poetry of the bard—when they can add inflection, rhythm, blocking, facial expressions, and body language to the mix. What might be simply great poetry on the written page, can bring us to tears or make us laugh when fleshed out in a theater.

Now, the members of ABBA would never claim that their work was the pop music equivalent of Shakespeare. But the concept is the same.

As catchy and well-produced the songs by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus were when they were first released, and even though they were sung in English, there still was a distance between the heart and the ears for most Americans. The music tickled our brains but never reached our hearts.

But the musical “Mamma Mia!” that they crafted from their songs (which is further shaped by a book by Catherine Johnson) helps add another dimension to their work.

Although the songs were not intended for this particular story– let’s admit it,, they were shoehorned in to fit the plot– the context of the story helps provide some deeper meaning to their work.

To briefly touch upon the plot, “Mamma Mia!” begins with a young woman—Sophie—who is about to get married. Raised by a single mother, she has longed to find out who her father was. Discovering some clues that it might be one of three men, she invites all to her impending wedding. Old emotions are stirred when the fathers arrive on the scene.

Of course, the added dimension to the songs of ABBA—which are impeccably orchestrated by Martin Koch with arrangements carefully lifted from the original recordings—would not be possible if the performers could not live up to the task.

In the case of the national tour that arrived at The Bushnell on Oct. 30, the cast does a fine job with the material and left everyone’s appetite satisfied with this theatrical blancmange.

Topping the list of performances that provide the show with the emotional heft it needs are the actors who are the emotional heart of the story.

Erin Fish, as Donna, the single mother of Sophie, and Chad W. Fornwalt, as possible dad Sam Carmichael, are fantastic in finding the emotion in the words of ABBA. They provide a story deeper than what the script or songs seem to provide.

Erin also benefits that her voice is similar in timbre to the women of ABBA so for nostalgic fans it’s almost like hearing the real thing.

Chad does a great job of embodying of taking the songs originally written for women’s voice and giving it the masculine perspective in his body language and vocal inflections.

Kyra Belle Johnson, as Sophie, is adorable in her role. Johnson has managed to find that spot in her character where she is ready to leave her childhood behind and to enter the adult world. But before she enters a new life, she wants to answer a nagging question from her old life..

One of the most fun performances of the evening came from Sarah Smith, who plays Donna’s former bandmate Rosie. She added a good dose of physical humor to the show, without stealing the scenes. But her scene built around the song “Take A Chance On Me,” frankly, stole the show.

Although I’m singling out a few actors, the whole ensemble was a delight. I can’t really find fault with anyone tapped to be part of this particular road tour.

“Mamma Mia!” is fun. No one would mistake it for “Hamlet.” But it was never intended to be held has “High Art.” “Mamma Mia!” is meant to take the audience on a bit of a mental vacation from the stresses of life. And in that regard, this particular production of “Mamma Mia!” succeeds superbly.

I give “Mamma Mia!” at The Bushnell 3 ½ out of 4 stars. You can catch the final performance tonight, Sunday, at 6:30 p.m.

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