After the Orpheum hosted an underwhelming run of The Bodyguard, it was up to Björn Ulvaeus and Catherine Johnson’s Mamma Mia! to pick up the slack and rekindle the fire we’ve come to expect from shows there. Despite its undeniable shortcomings, Mamma Mia! does the job with the help of a powerhouse cast, providing its audience a lovely form of escape from the harsh world beyond the stage door.
Based off ABBA’s greatest hits, Mamma Mia! tells the story of the mayhem that ensues when Sophie (Lizzie Markson), a bride-to-be who grew up fatherless, finds her mother’s old diary, whose entries suggest there are three men that could possibly be her father, and sends wedding invitations to all three in hopes of solving the mystery.
Of course, the score is immaculate; one would expect nothing less from a musical set to ABBA. But, it’s the sheer, profound talent of the cast that blows it out of the water. The vocals are masterful, the acting fervently emotive, and the dancing refined while still playful. The brassy enthusiasm every cast member injects into their character keeps the energy of the show alive even during the slower numbers and tense points, while the witty one-liners, fast pacing, and 70s pop music keep it lighthearted.
Such is life, Mamma Mia! is far from a perfect show. The biggest indicator of this is the set, which looks like it would be more at home in a community theater production than a touring Broadway show. It’s minimalistic, with a few curved walls forming the hotel which turn either inward or outward, depending on whether the characters are inside it. While uncreative and somewhat dull, the walls serve their purpose. The real offenders are the backdrops, whose unfitting color schemes make them somehow both bland and garish, and look more like desktop screensavers than a Greek island. Ultimately, the performers are able to compensate for this with their ability, but it feels wrong to see such professionals on such a mediocre set, like a beautiful painting against a cheap canvas.
Other than the cast, what makes Mamma Mia! so appealing is the unparalleled joy in it. As you watch Sophie’s bachelorette party get crashed by the groom’s friends, or the well-to-do, middle-aged Harry Bright (Andrew Tebo) attempt to headbang, there’s something powerful in the unapologetic frivolity of it all. With the state of the world, it’s refreshing to see so many people genuinely happy for a few hours--actors and audience members alike. We could all use a healthy dose of escapism now and then, and Mamma Mia!, with its endearing cheesiness, delivers it.
This show isn’t there to impart wisdom or morality unto its audience, or wax poetic about the human condition, or break down any barriers that should have been in ruins long ago. But, when you leave the theater, and the mixture of the iciness of reality and the chilly February air threatens to freeze your skin and soul, the high spirits in which Mamma Mia! leaves you will keep you warm.