In the last 20 minutes or so of Mamma Mia!, currently showing at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, this much-touted but fundamentally trivial musical finally begins to live up to its hype. For one thing, the ABBA songs that make up this segment — "Knowing You Knowing Me," "Slipping Through My Fingers" and "The Winner Takes It All" — happen to be sung with real pathos and authority, unlike so many of the barely motivated tunes in Act One. And then there's the fact that the plot, which has hardly existed till now, here begins to generate some dramatic interest. Will young Sophie Sheridan (Kristie Marsden) ever marry her lover, Sky (Chris Bolan)? Will Sophie discover, in time for the marriage, which of three men (Pearce Bunting, Don Noble and James Kall) is really her father? The wedding begins, the priest (Frank Mastrone) says "Dearly beloved" — and there's a surprise, followed by another surprise. Then two lovers walk off into the moonlight and the show it seems, is over. But it's not. As the huge cast takes its curtain call, everyone begins singing again — "Mamma Mia," "Waterloo" and "Dancing Queen." It's a carefully staged encore and it's the best thing in the whole show. Now there's no crudely simplistic dialogue leading up to a song, now there's no half-hearted joking passing for wit, and no unearned, unconvincing angst passing for emotion. What we have in these last marvelous minutes is honest theater: wonderful singing, delightful costuming, thrilling choreography and all-out fun. If the whole evening had been constructed this way, Mamma Mia! might have been an abundantly pleasing Las Vegas-type extravaganza, a dynamic demonstration of the kinetic power of '70s pop. If the whole evening had been constructed this way, this might have been a rousing, boisterous success.
So much for "if." In its present form, Mamma Mia! is a mostly overpraised bauble of a show, a meaningless trifle that's long on sincerity and woefully short on relevance to its audience. The story it tells is about Sophie and her mother, Donna (Monique Lund), both residents of a Greek island whereon Donna runs a taverna. Sophie, who's about to be married, has discovered that her father, whom she's never met, could be any of three of her mother's past lovers.
So she invites all three men to the wedding, expecting that somehow she'll be able to learn which of the guys is the lucky parent. (Does she intend DNA testing? Blood typing? The script is unclear.) Also arriving on the island are two middle-aged friends of Donna (Ellen Harvey and Robin Baxter), former members of the all-girl group "Donna and the Dynamos." For most of two acts, these various characters interact in no particularly credible way and, at the drop of a sun visor, sing, ostensibly about subjects generated by the dialogue. There's some clowning, some sexual innuendo, the possibility of some pairing off, and then the climax mentioned earlier. And then that wonderful encore: Thank heaven for that encore. One leaves the theater humming silly old ABBA songs and thinking not a bit about the plot and characters.
And it's not the actors' fault. In fact, all the performers in this company are top-notch from start to finish, lending weight, through their talent, to a book that threatens at every moment to evaporate. Marsden as Sophie is persuasively starry-eyed in an up-to-date, sexually experienced way, and Lund as her mother is easily imaginable as a '60s flower child who has grown, somewhat reluctantly, into a successful businesswoman. Kall, Bunting and Noble as the three may-be-fathers play their underwritten roles charmingly, and Harvey and Baxter as former girl-group singers Tanya and Rosie are cheerful images of middle-aged respectability.
All the performers have good strong singing voices — a necessity, considering the booming music they have to work with — and Harvey and Baxter particularly show a special talent for comedy. Mark Thompson's attractive sets, depicting areas in and around the taverna, have a pleasingly typical Greek look. His costumes are at times — during a dream sequence and the encore — genuinely spectacular.
And still the experience remains trivial. I admit to being puzzled about the strong response the show has gotten in London, Toronto and elsewhere ("Mamma Mia! is genius," says the New York Post! "Sheer heaven!" says the Daily Telegraph!). My theory is that the show's great success in England convinced other audiences in advance that they would have a terrific time, and that the decision to be entertained made the actual experience a foregone conclusion. In any case, there's a mildly likable show here and it builds, in its last minutes, to something special. But it's too little too late: the show, as a whole, is eminently forgettable.
Hot ticket or not.