“Mamma Mia!,” with a story and plot fueled by the music of the Swedish band ABBA, is widely considered comfort food for theater fans. Critics rarely give the show a thumb’s up
I loved the Broadway version, which ran at the Winter Garden in New York for 12 years and transferred to the Broadhurst Theatre for two more years.
First, a disclosure: I like comfort food and I adore the nostalgia of “Mamma Mia” in the early 2000s, because it’s a jukebox musical that chugs with ABBA melodies, boasts family virtues, amplifies the disco beat, and treasures girl and boy bands.
“Mamma Mia!,” the first show of the 2023-24 season at Diamond Head Theatre’s new facility, seems to have a disconnect problem, at least at Saturday night’s (Sept. 24) production I saw. The generally faithful audience seemed distant, sitting on their hands in the early moments of the show, and even the cast appeared to be somewhat disengaged, lacking chemistry.
It was discomforting, disturbing, disappointing that something was off kilter – like the feeling you get when you drop a quarter in the jukebox and it struggles to deliver the songs.
So, Act 1, which contains key ABBA tunes, was a see-sawing struggle to get into the groove. By Act 2, the audience and the cast seemed to separately find their mojo, right down to the longish final curtain call. So, the vehicle started, albeit a bit tardy.
The production, directed by Michael Ng in his DHT debut, offers lots to like. He brings vigor in his effort to rekindle ABBA’s moods, music, and manners.
His two female leads, Teagan Staslawicz as Sophie Sheridan and Alison Aldcroft as Donna Sheridan, project strong and luminous voices, as daughter and mother, respectively, living on a Greek island on the eve of the nuptuals of Sophie, 20, who wants her unknown dad to give her away, something her single mom, who independently operates a taverna, doesn’t know about and wouldn’t approve Sophie’s motives.
Teagan Staskawicz as Sophie, center, flanked by best buds Olivia Manahan as Ali and Marie Chiyo Staples as Lisa, in “Mamma Mia!”
Sophie peeks into Donna’s diary and discovers one of mom’s three beaus previous lovers two decades ago might be her dad, so she shoots off invites to each, who simultaneously arrive but not bearing gifts like those famous wise men.
At previous performances I’ve seen, the spectators spontaneously bounce to the rhythms, even sing and clap along, but not so here. Awkward.
Weary from rehearsals? A backstage issue? An off night?
One can wonder, but the reality is, the cast – singers and dancers – soldiered on and had to earn the applause. Might’ve happened somewhere between Donna and the company’s ensemble embrace of “Money, Money, Money” or Donna’s and Sophie’s romp on the title song with the three gents (Jeff Andrews as Harry Bright, Kirk A. Lapilio Jr. as Bill Austin and Kalani Hicks as Sam Carmichael) .
A gentle reminder here: “Mamma Mia!” has a built-in exclamation point, for positivity! Lest you forget, the show was created by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, the ABBA composers (with material contributed by Stig Anderson), with book by Catherine Johnson.
Quibble all you want, but the songs rarely describe the precise moments nor suit the performers. But this compilation is a quilt work of 20-plus ABBA numbers, and they made the cut, wherever there was a need.
Here’s where director Ng has found his niche. He enlists Dwayne Sakaguchi, also a first timer choreographing a DHT production, and Sakaguchi brings sass, swagger and inventive moves to energize the cast, including one hilarious number with the gents flinging arms and hands, with legs kicking to and fro, dancing with scuba gear flippers on.
Such body language of the choreographics enlivens the audience, since the production numbers are plentiful, providing action and reaction to Jenny Shiroma’s lively musical direction.
Alson Aldcroft, center, in blue, as Donna Sheridan; Alison Maldanado, left, in green, as Rosie Mulligan; and Laura Brucia Hamm, right, in purple, as Tanya; in “Mamma Mia!“
And finally, the DHT stage is filled with scenics, designed by Deanne Kennedy, that fill the space and the eye. The main sets are a pair of tavernas, resembling Mediterranean stucco edifices, augmented by occasional windows dropped from the fly space, to suggest bedroom activities, and a shimmering curtain. The latter effect enables lighting designer Dawn Oshima to add a stunning circular ball of lights to enhance the effects of a nightlife scene and add dangling lights beneath the stage proscenium. And can’t forget the iridescence of the rainbow hues for the entr’acte that kicks off Act 2
Aiko Schick’s hair and makeup design captures disco ‘dos, to complement Emily Lane’s ‘70s costume retro gear, with obvious fun and freedom to dress Donna and the Dynamo’s ABBA-inspired garb of dated scalloped sleeves and platform shoes – a girl band to the max.
Of course, the trio of beaus also have the opportunity to be ABBA-fied in those gawd awful gear from the past.
Kerri Yoneda’s sound design had some issues in Act 2, notably with Donna’s miking, too soft on volume. Surely, the fine-tuning has been completed by now.
The score is not exactly stuff you’d chirp with your paramour; you know ‘em all, don’t ya, complete with repetitious titles like “Honey, Honey,” “Money, Money, Money,” “Gimme, Gimme, Gimme,” and “I Do, I Do, I Do.”
One substantial, endearing and comical number is “Take a Chance on Me,” when Alison Maldanado as Rosie (one of Donna’s BFF) pursues the available Lapililo (Bill), trying to get him to commit (he does, by the finale). It’s a rare instance when the song fuels the action.
The wedding guest list includes Olivia Manayan (Ali) and Marie Chiyo Staples (Lisa), Sophie’s best friends, and their “Honey, Honey” effort was one of those hollow, distancing vocals, despite their physical girly hugs and cheer, at the Saturday performance.
Donna’s buds’ collaborative tunes, with the aforementioned Maldanado (Rosie) and Laura Bruci Hamm (Tanya), include “Chiquitita” and “Dancing Queen.” Logic is not the operative word in this one.
If you know the plot, you know that Sophie’s choice is to call off the wedding, but one is ultimately staged for a happily-ever-after “I Do, I Do” finish.
Cynics should stay home, but if you’re willing to take a chance (if you can secure tickets), you’ll likely sing, or clap, or tap along to the frivolity and fun. And finally admit you’ve been closeted ABBA admirer for years. …
And that’s Show Biz. …
A musical with music and lyrics by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, with contributions from Stig Anderson
Where: Diamond Head Theatre
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays ; 3 p.m. Saturdays Oct. 1 and 7; 4 p.m. Sundays Oct. 1, 8 and 15; special performance at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 4 to benefit Maui wild fire victims. Note: most performances sold out
Tickets: $37 to $62, at www.diamondheadtheatre.com or (808) 733-0274