Review: Mamma Mia!

The cast of Mamma Mia!                                                                                      Photo by KO Rinearson

By Larry Laneer
July 25, 2018

Mamma Mia! wasn’t the first jukebox musical, and it may not be the worst one, but it is the show often cited as giving the genre a bad name. And to the show’s legions of admirers that matters not a whit.

Two or three touring productions of Mamma Mia! have played here, but Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma’s sharp-looking production, now at the Thelma Gaylord, is the first by a city theater company of this dramatically and comedically jejune musical.

The show’s score was selected—as if punching up records on a jukebox—from the catalog of the Swedish pop band ABBA, which flourished in the late 1970s. The rickety scaffolding on which the songs are hung concerns Donna who runs a struggling taverna on a small Greek island. Her 20-year-old daughter, Sophie, is getting married, but her father won’t be walking her down the aisle because she doesn’t know who he is. Sophie reads her mother’s diary and identifies three paternal prospects from 20 years ago. She invites them to the wedding hoping to figure out which one is dear old dad. Surprisingly, their mailing addresses are still good after 20 years (the show is set in 1999). All three show up with no idea of what Sophie is doing. Let’s just say complications and misunderstandings ensue.

Thus, the creators (Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, music/lyrics; Catherine Johnson, book) have to force songs that weren’t written specifically for this musical into the flimsy story line. Some of the tunes will be familiar to anyone who frequented discos or had a radio tuned to a Top 40 station about four decades ago: “I Have a Dream,” “Chiquitita,” Dancing Queen,” and the title song.

So, has director and choreographer Lyn Cramer found new insights or hidden gems in this musical? No, but she’s working with inferior material. That’s not to say Cramer hasn’t done a top-notch job with the show. She has staged almost two dozen musical numbers and maneuvered a cast of 27 to their marks. Theatergoers will appreciate the all-male chorus line in wet suits and flippers.

Lyric and Cramer are putting on a big production here. Even the polka dots that adorn Kimberly Powers’s scenic design are huge. Jeffrey Meek produced a burst of color with his costumes two weeks ago for Hello, Dolly! Mamma makes Dolly look downright drab. Vibrant colors abound in the scenery and costumes, brilliantly lit by Helena Kuukka. And get those eight—eight!—reflective disco balls hanging above the stage like planets in a solar system.

The performances are fine, but the cast is saddled with doing pop ditties from the 1970s and subpar dialog. Meredith Inglesby plays Donna with Jessica Martens as Sophie. Donna and two chums had a pop band in their youth, which oddly resembles ABBA, and her musical mates come for the wedding. Barb Schoenhofer gives a cheeky performance as one, and the great, magenta-haired Renee Anderson plays the other. Steve Blanchard, Gregory DeCandia, and Tommy Glenn are the dads in question. The ensemble does an impressive job with the choral singing and acrobatic choreography.

I once asked a friend who is a big fan of this musical why he admires it so much. He said “I just like smiling for two hours.” It’s a short distance from a smile to a grimace. Lovers of the show will revel in Lyric’s production. Loathers will not be changed by it.

Mamma Mia! by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus (music/lyrics) and Catherine Johnson (book)
Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma
7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8:00 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2:00 p.m. Saturday-Sunday, through July 29
Thelma Gaylord Performing Arts Theatre, Civic Center Music Hall
201 N. Walker Ave.
$42-$93
405-524-9312