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ABBA, a Greek Island, a Dancing Queen. Mamma Mia and Music History

Culture Watch
tags: theater review, Mamma Mia



Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.

The cast of Mamma Mia, Photo by John Vecchiolla


I never did see the musical Mamma Mia!, featuring the songs of the Swedish group ABBA, on Broadway, but I have seen the movie twenty times or so. I am a big ABBA fan and the movie (and play) uses their best songs to help tell a charming fictional story set on a Greek island. My fortunes improved yesterday, though, because I caught up with a stage production of Mamma Mia at the Westchester Broadway Theater, in Elmsford, New York, and it was terrific.

Mamma Mia! is a nice look at the music of ABBA and, in a way, the history of music in the mid-1970s. The story of the musical is a touching tale of romance that chronicles the love life of pretty young Sophie, the daughter of a single mom, Donna, who slept with three different men twenty years ago. Sophie assumes that one of them is her father and invites all three to her wedding on the Greek island where she lives. I think you can see some of the trouble that is waiting just around the corner for everybody.

Each of the men believes he is the dad. Mom Donna finds out about Sophie’s scheme and is frantic. Her two best friends are angry and happy at the same time. While the three “dads” talk to Sophie, we learn a whole lot about Donna, a hard-working, industrious woman who did a crackerjack job of raising her daughter with no male around to help.

So who is the father? What will happen to Sophie? Donna? The lovely island, that gets a big kick in the pants from this crew?

The beauty of the musical is that book writer Catherine Johnson has created a nice, touching story of romance and into each scene perfectly fitted an ABBA hit whose lyrics help to tell the story of the romance, the dads and poor overworked and underappreciated mom Donna. This is a warm and seamless story that bounces from one fabulous song to the next, the plot getting better and better as it moves along.

All of the music is by ABBA’s Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, with additional songs by Stig Anderson. The score includes ABBA mega hits such as Mamma Mia!, Dancing Queen, Voulez-Vous, Waterloo, Honey, Honey, Our Last Summer, S.O.S., Super Trouper, Take a Chance on Me, and The Winner Takes It All.

Director Mark Martino has does a nice job of staging the play, which could get out of hand without a firm directorial touch and just become a runaway review. He works with a group of splendid actors. The stars of the show are the incredibly gifted Michelle Dawson as Donna and Mariah Macfarlane as Sophie. Each is at times a fearless dynamo and at times a tender pussycat. The two have wonderful singing voices and hold the show together. Other strong performances are from Kilty Reidy, Brent Bateman and Xander Chauncey as Harry, Bill and Sam, the three dads. Complementing them are Sydney Patrick, Cameron Anika Hill, Elise Kinnon, Jennifer Swiderski, Nathan Cockroft, Connor Wince and Matty Rickard.

The show ran on Broadway for 14 years, until 2014, and the movie (big hit) premiered in 2008.

The play and the movie reintroduced everybody to the two men. Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, and two women, Frida Lyngstad and Agnetha Faltskog, of ABBA who tore up the record book and made musical history back in 1974, when the quartet first burst on to the scene and made history when it won the Eurovision Song contest in the UK, becoming the first Swedish group ever to do so. Over the years, ABBA produced several dozen hit songs. Eight of their albums reached number one in Great Britain. All of their music did well here in the United States. They have sold anywhere from 140 to 300 million records worldwide, depending on whose estimate you use. Their music was featured in two movies, Muriel’s Wedding and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2010. Their biggest hit, Dancing Queen, is probably played somewhere in the world every hour or so. In 1976, the band released its first greatest hits album and it made them worldwide sensations. The success of ABBA, music historians say, was their ability, over 40 years, to be popular in dozens of countries, not just the U.S. and the U.K. That worldwide popularity still exists today and generations of fans, over four decades of music history, now tap their feet to their tunes

The band toured all over the world from 1975 to the early 1980s. Faltskog married Ulvaeus and Lyngstad married Andersson, but the toll of stress wore out their unions and both couples divorced in the early 1980s, ending the life of the group. Their music continued to be popular, though, and roared with gusto in Mamma Mia!

Where can you hear ABBA today? Anywhere there is a radio.

PRODUCTION: The play is produced by Judy Cramer, Richard East, others. Sets: Steve Loftus, Costumes: Jeff Hendry and Matthew Hemesath, Lighting: Andrew Gmoser, Sound: Mark Zuckerman. Choreography is by Elise Kinnon. The play is directed by Mark Martino. It runs through June 25.



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