THEATER REVIEW: Thump thing limits ABBA’s ‘Mamma’s’ minor merits

“Mamma Mia!” / Mac-Haydn Theatre, Chatham

THE MUSIC OF ABBA seemed innovative in its day. It was, in a way.

But, of an evening, can a listener get tired of Abba music in minor modes? (Yup. And I love minor modes.) It’s when the whole first act of a theater piece such as “Mamma Mia!” offers song after song after song in minor. And if the songs all have similar meters, tempos, and harmonic progressions, with lots of percussional um-thump, um-thump, um-thump, um-thump, the sequence may be enough to make you long for a waltz, or a dirge, or even a snobby piece in seven-eight. How about a small helping of C-major?

You probably already know that it’s about a feisty mom and a young girl who is trying to find out which of three men is her father.

Madison Stratton as Tanya and ensemble perform in the musical “Mamma Mia!” at the Mac-Haydn Theatre in Chatham now through July 22. Photo by Sarah Kozma

Dancing is really what the show is about. Seventies’ dancing. But throughout the evening, similar meters and tempos leave even the most skilled dancers shooting their arms to the sky and wiggling their behinds in too-predictable patterns.

Act II gives some “major” relief; but then a cellophane-thin plot begins to be wearisome, and not even Mac-Haydn’s actor/dancer/singers can um-thump their way to significance. The excessive physicality of everything in this production—including the unpleasant mugging of otherwise excellent featured dancer Atsushi Eda—suggests that cast and director Bryan Knowlton may have sensed that there is something they must try to make up for in this material.

Are there rewards in this production? A few. 1. Finding middle-aged people in almost all the major roles is good. (News flash: many musical actors are actually talented and attractive after age 32.) 2. Hearing some nice singing (in spite of certain women’s baby-talk vowels). 3. Discovering and following the redheaded chorus kid who dances with extra eye-grabbing specificity and verve. (I think it is Emily Cobb.) 4. Watching for scenes featuring the amazing Colin Pritchard, who knows how to do everything and just is.

For a few moments in Act II Pritchard and Erin Spears Ledford (as Rosie) make some real theater with the song “Take a Chance on Me.”

After a totally unbelievable plot-twist, the final scene has a song without um-thump. It is refreshing. But short-lived. Quickly it is followed by extended bows-dancing and a depressing surprise: the three leading middle-aged guys emerge, for no apparent reason, in flesh-hugging lamé and sparkles, thereby depositing all vestiges of their dignity in the orgy of thump.

Though it is not her bottle of pop, this grumpy old reviewer is aware that “Mamma Mia!” has made some people very rich and many people very happy. At Mac-Haydn through July 22, the happy part may be yours to imbibe. Or not.

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