The beloved ABBA musical has never met a toe it can't get tapping

By Marc Snetiker
July 30, 2017 at 04:08 PM EDT
Credit: Craig T. Mathew and Greg Grudt/Mathew Imaging

No musical has done more with less than Mamma Mia!, the 2001 Broadway phenomenon which spread its feel-good message to over 400 cities worldwide, re-ignited the music of ABBA, and sparked dozens of derivative jukebox musical attempts, and did it all while pulling in billions from its Broadway and West End, touring, cruise ship, and movie endeavors. Though the show closed on Broadway in 2015, this train keeps chugging, and its latest professional incarnation — the coveted annual summer musical slot at the Hollywood Bowl — is a fairly good indicator of how time has not caused this perennial crowd-pleaser to lose its purpose.

In an era where every new pop in culture is deemed either “total escapism!” or “a necessary mirror to society!”, Mamma Mia! floats in a dreamy purgatory between both where the only important currency is fun. Insane as that diagnosis sounds, the show — written by Catherine Johnson, with music by ABBA’s Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus — has always been but a vehicle to some greater euphoria. Neither its undercooked story nor frayed strings of logic have magically changed in the Hollywood Bowl’s baby-blue bauble of a production, directed by three-time Tony winner Kathleen Marshall. But modern malaise be damned, that same inimitable dose of glee still packs quite a punch when one of those infectious ABBA tunes begins.

Credit: Craig T. Mathew and Greg Grudt/Mathew Imaging

Jennifer Nettles, the lead singer of country duo Sugarland, leads the cast as Donna Sheridan, a resort owner who — come on, you have to know this by now — unexpectedly reunites with three of her former lovers (Jaime Camil, Steven Weber, Hamish Linklater) after her 20-year-old daughter Sophie (Dove Cameron) invites them all to her wedding, convinced of each man’s possible paternity. In a colorful performance, Nettles nails the pent-up energy and desperate unraveling of the character (because, truly, what an insane thing to happen to a woman, single, pregnant, and disowned, forced to build a life for herself and raise a daughter on the Greek isle where she was abandoned by her best shot at love, to have to come face to face with her three biggest heartbreaks on the day of her daughter’s already stressful wedding). The singer’s voice takes its time finding the pocket where her pop-country plunk meshes comfortably with the classic tones of musical theater, but by the time she belts out her act two stunner “The Winner Takes It All,” Nettles more than earns her mid-show standing ovation. By its own design, the Hollywood Bowl production can often be a venue for local actors to put on a costume but not necessarily play a role, spending their moments onstage winking to the audience (see: Lea DeLaria as Donna’s questionably styled friend, Rosie), but Nettles is also among the production’s handful of performers to offer a real glimpse of emotionality.

VIDEO: Tony Awards by the Numbers

The performance’s other standouts: 21-year-old Cameron, a rising Disney Channel star (and the single best part of NBC’s Hairspray Live!), grounds the show with poise and pitch-perfect melody, finding the right balance as Donna’s naïve, optimistic daughter. Tisha Campbell-Martin, the sitcom star from Martin and My Wife and Kids, is a clear kinetic pace-setter for the cast; her Real Housewives of ABBA spin on Donna’s cougar pal, Tanya, resulted in the few book scenes that truly worked (as the Bowl’s size can often devour the nuances of comedic timing) as well as a legitimate showstopper in “Does Your Mother Know.” Stage staple Hamish Linklater continues his dependable streak, evidenced both in the theatre and with his budding cred in Hollywood (recently, FX’s Legion); Linklater slips on his character shoes as Donna’s high-strung former beau, Harry, and walks away with some of the show’s most charming moments.

Credit: Craig T. Mathew and Greg Grudt/Mathew Imaging

Marshall’s direction keeps the energy flowing, despite swallowed-up book scenes, with her proven keen eye toward production numbers, spreading a 20-something ensemble across the stage to conjure the jubilance from crowd pleasers like “Dancing Queen,” “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!,” and “Does Your Mother Know” to their most effective degree. It’s in these core songs — and the iconic titular paranoia pop number — that Mamma Mia! lives or dies. With a more than game cast bringing the brightest colors out of Derek McLane’s practical, pleasant Greek set, not to mention themselves for three nights only, the game-changing musical and its hypnosis over even the most jaded crowd continues to prove why these jukeboxes stay in operation.