The ultimate guilty pleasure musical returns to the Orpheum, in all its sequin-studded glory. Hold your squeals until the end, please.
If "Mamma Mia!" is about anything beyond just an excuse to indulge our crush on ’70s Swedish pop acts (truly a love that dare not speak its name), it’s the story of Sophie (Chelsea Williams), a young woman about be married after spending her entire life on her mother’s Greek isles resort. For vaguely defined but apparently all-important reasons, Sophie doesn’t want to walk down the aisle without her long-lost father in tow.
But it’s anyone’s guess which of three men from her mom’s past might have kicked in the relevant chromosomes, so she hoodwinks all of them into coming to the wedding without telling them why. Yeah, we don’t see any flaws in that plan either, let’s move on.
Sophie’s fiancé... doesn’t actually matter that much. He’s mostly just a big, dumb slab of good-lookin’ (not that there’s anything wrong with that) and an excuse to have a wedding plot. The real other love story lies between Sophie and her mom, Donna (Georgia Kate Haege, frontwoman for a real Australian disco act. And boy does it show). Donna and Sophie don’t see eye-to-eye about... something or other. Again, it’s all a bit vague, but the important thing is that Mom is just doing her best, but daughter wants more out of life and that’s our plot. Go with it.
Whether "Mamma Mia!" is any good is almost beside the point. It’s just supposed to fun, and we cannot deny the show’s cotton candy appeal, so vibrant and catchy that there’s almost something primitive about it. As if a mysterious quirk of evolution hardwired the human brain to just want to watch this choreography and these costumes and hear "Dancing Queen" and "Man After Midnight" and, oh God, someone please save us from ourselves.
There’s nothing wrong with a big, frothy, caffeine jolt of a musical now and then. We like this touring production’s costumes (giant masses of color and straight lines with very, very low necklines) and Anthony Van Laast’s sharp, precise choreography. The steps are maybe a little sterile, but they keep up with what’s really a very long show. There’s a bit with some snorkels and flippers that... well, it’s hard to explain, but suffice to say it won us over.
Even so, we can’t help finding "Mamma Mia!" a little alienating in this day and age. It plays like a weird One Percenter fairy tale where everyone can afford international travel at the drop of a hat, changes outfits four to six times a day and has the body fat ratio of a mannequin. Who can relate to this? Tell us so we can start hating them immediately.
Now, "Mamma Mia!" isn’t supposed to be about the real world. It’s pure wish-fulfillment. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But that does make it hard to care about the supposed conflict at the heart of the story. Sophie has some kind of big hang-ups about her life but who’s to say why? Consider: Her major ambition is to move away from a Mediterranean island paradise, which she talks about as if it’s Bedford Falls. What the hell?
Mom almost saves it. Haege has a nice blue-collar class, and boy, does this woman love to sing. How often do you see a musical where the lead does encores? But even as infectiously fun as Haege is, the show runs too long, packs an exhausting number of songs in, and feels a bit like an awkward artifact these days.
We get the appeal, but there are just better pop musicals out there. True fans won’t care, and good for them, but if you’re not already one of the initiated, there’s no real reason to join the ranks now.
The show is good for: Audiences who love to sing along (there’s just no way to stop yourself).
The show is not good for: Audiences looking for something that breaks the mold even a little bit.
"Mamma Mia!" plays through April 6 at the Orpheum, 1192 Market St. in San Francisco. For tickets and information, call 888-746-1799 or visit ShnSF.com