Times, as they say, are tough.
Inflation is up, stocks are down, there’s a brutal, grinding war in Ukraine, and, if you happen to be a person with a uterus – or someone who cares about a person with a uterus – the recent overturn of Roe v. Wade may have you feeling a certain way about the state of the world. All of this means that the occasional distraction isn’t just warranted but necessary to buoy our spirits.
Which bring us to ABBA. You know, ABBA! The Swedish pop group that took over the world with an endless stream of catchy tunes in the ’70s? Well, at some point a producer approached ABBA songwriters Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson and asked if they could take the band’s existing catalog of hits and craft a musical around them. The result is “Mamma Mia!” a wildly successful show that’s seen a film adaptation and a sequel, as well as a local staging from Virginia Rep that opened last Friday.
As “Mamma Mia” is Italian for “Oh, Mama,” the show is set in … Greece? Alright, so maybe logic isn’t the strongest suit of this fluffy jukebox musical. Sophie (Hannah Jennison) is about to get married on the Greek island where she was raised by her American mother Donna (Emelie Faith Thompson). Naturally, Sophie would like her father to attend her nuptials. The problem is, she doesn’t know who her father is.
Through reading her mother’s old diary, Sophie learns that her mother had three lovers at roughly the same time who may have sired her. In the ironclad logic of musicals, Sophie decides to invite all three to her wedding in the hopes of sussing out which one is her father. To add an element of surprise, Sophie doesn’t tell her mother that she’s invited them – in fact, she invited them pretending to be her mother – and hijinks ensue.
Rounding out the cast are Donna’s old flames Harry (Anthony CeFala), Bill (Jason Kypros) and Sam (Alexander Sapp), and Donna’s friends Tanya (Grey Garrett) and Rosie (Catrina Brenae). Directed by Happy Mahaney, the show is largely entertaining despite a few hiccups.
On opening night, the live band sometimes overpowered the vocals, especially in the first half of the show, and the band under Sandy Dacus’ musical direction didn’t always sound together. Additionally, many of the secondary performers were markedly stronger singers than the leads.
Garrett easily blows the doors off the place with her humorous rendition of “Does Your Mother Know?” and Sapp shines in “Knowing Me, Knowing You.” Throughout the show, Sapp finds little ways to humorously acknowledge the ridiculousness of the show’s plot without breaking character. Brenae sings sweetly on “Take a Chance on Me,” and the ensemble adds to the show’s humor.
And Thompson excels in quieter numbers near the show’s end like “The Winner Takes It All” and “Slipping Through My Fingers.” Her performance is on the tame side, but to be fair, Donna isn’t necessarily the greatest character to hit the stage. For all of the show’s sex-positive and female empowerment messaging, Donna – a single mom and business owner – is kind of bitter until she lands a man.
Josafath Reynoso’s simple set of white-walled buildings and a flowering tree evokes Greece while still providing different settings for the proceedings. Joe Doran’s lighting design is playful throughout, and Ashleigh King’s choreography works well in big numbers like “Voulez Vous” and the finale, but the dancers aren’t always together in other places.
While “Mamma Mia!” is pretty cheesy, the musical knows it and leans into it in an appealing way. Still, it’s a very strange show with narrative threads that are picked up and dropped. Three-quarters of the way through the show, we learn that Donna’s friend Rosie is a famous cookbook author. This is never mentioned again. Also, did we ever catch the names of Sophie’s two best friends?
It doesn’t matter. The show is a silly respite from the problems of the world, and the real stars here are ABBA’s immaculate pop confections. Thank you for the music indeed.
Virginia Rep’s “Mamma Mia!” plays through Aug. 7 at the November Theatre, 114 W. Broad St. For more information, visit va-rep.org or call (804) 282-2620.