“Mamma Mia!” in Cleveland dazzles viewers with ABBA music, production leaves a lot to be desired

“Mamma Mia!” returned to the stage in Playhouse Square last week. The iconic jukebox musical consists of songs by the Swedish band ABBA. The show, while definitely fun, lacked most of the magic typically found at Playhouse Square, resulting in a lackluster viewing experience.

For those unaware of the plot, “Mamma Mia!” might resemble, at first glance, the TLC reality TV show “Say Yes to the Dress.” The show opens the day before the wedding of the main character, Sophie, on the small Greek island of Kalokairi. We quickly learn that Sophie’s mother, Donna, is incredibly involved in her life, yet she is unsure of who exactly her father is. Sophie finds her mother’s diary from the year she was born and locates entries for Sam, Bill and Harry, who all had romantic relationships with Donna within the same month. Knowing this information, she invites all three of them to her wedding without telling her mother. When the three men show up at the small hotel that Donna runs, Donna flips out. Furthermore, Donna’s relationship with her old flames is far from perfect: For example, Sam led her on and then left her to get engaged to someone else. We later learn that he divorced his now ex-wife and has lusted for Donna ever since.

The first act ends with Sophie’s hen night, or bachelorette, party. Over the course of the party, Sophie ends up telling Sam, Harry and Bill individually that he is her father, and each of them offers to walk her down the aisle and give her away.

The second act opens with Sophie having a fever dream involving her three dads, stressing about all three of them walking her down the aisle at the same time. Disturbed by this, she comes clean to Sky, her fiancé, about what she did, creating a fight that Sam attempts to mediate. In the run up to the wedding hour, the fathers all attempt to talk to both Sophie and Donna, wanting to be more involved in Sophie’s life and her decision to get married. Sophie makes the decision to have Donna walk her down the aisle instead, which is treated with heartbreak and confusion by the potential dads.

Having arrived at the wedding, which started with Bill and one of Donna’s friends nearly making out on the floor, Donna interrupts the priest by mentioning to Sophie that she has three fathers, all of whom are in attendance. Sophie then comes clean, admitting why all three of Donna’s former situationships ended up on the same obscure Greek island. In the spur of the moment, Sophie decides to postpone the wedding, though she is still clearly in love with Sky. Sam then takes this opportunity to propose to Donna. She says yes, and next thing you know, they are married.

The show ends with the cast singing various ABBA tunes, dressed in increasingly whacky ’70s-era costumes. In fact, hearing so many songs by ABBA live that I had previously only heard on Spotify was a joy and the highlight of my evening. The vibes throughout the show were on point, with the crowd even singing along at times.

The number “Lay All Your Love on Me” was definitely a highlight and had ridiculously good choreography. The groomsmen interrupt Sky and Sophie’s romantic moment, dressed up in snorkeling gear and marching with their fins on across the stage. This scene was done incredibly well; it was both hilarious and got an emotional message across as well.

However, some of the other parts of the show felt a tad elementary. Even if there were only two people onstage, you could hear other voices singing that were not other characters. I am unsure where these voices were coming from—my guesses are either ensemble members backstage or a backtrack. If it was the former, I wish they brought them on stage, as that’s where the beauty of live theater comes from. If it was the latter on the other hand, it is just disappointing and greatly detracts from the experience for the same reason.

Furthermore, the set design was just mid. There was one set piece that the show turned around to represent scenes inside and outside, which felt very basic. While it makes touring companies a lot easier to move around, many other traveling shows—for example, “Les Misérables”—have multipart elaborate sets that are far more complex than turning around a small structure on wheels.

The lighting too felt basic and cookie-cutter. When it was not perfectly bright, the actors were often covered in shadows, making them hard to see—especially from the back of the theater where I was sitting. The overuse of solid covers also felt uninspired.

Lastly, the show’s acting was all over the place. While I adored the portrayals of Tanya and Rosie, Donna’s best friends, the men’s performances were confusing. Harry had an obnoxious and clearly artificial British accent. Also, Bill was apparently supposed to be Australian, but this was never communicated to the viewer. This just goes to show how generally uninspiring some of the performances were—they were beyond similar.

Now, no matter what I’ve said, I will always recommend that Case Western Reserve University students go check out any show playing at Playhouse Square. It is such an underused cultural site in my opinion, and students should take more advantage of it more often.

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