Los Angeles Theater Review: MAMMA MIA! (Hollywood Bowl)

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by Samuel Garza Bernstein on July 30, 2017

in Theater-Los Angeles


I’ve always thought Benny Andersson and Björn Kristian Ulvaeus of ABBA, along with Mamma Mia! book writer Catherine Johnson, were incredibly smart to fashion a narrative around characters the same age as the people who likely most fondly remember ABBA: Baby Boomers and Older Gen-Xers. The young woman about to be married isn’t the lead—her fortyish mother Donna is, along with her two old friends and former bandmates Tanya and Rosie. Even the three fortyish father possibilities, Harry, Sam, and Bill, outrank the bride and groom, and each is given plenty of opportunities to shine. And shine they do in Kathleen Marshall’s excellent staging at the Hollywood Bowl.

The plot is unapologetically silly, but never dumb. A young woman on a Greek island (Sophie) is about to be married, but doesn’t know the identity of her biological father. From snooping through her mother’s diary, she learns there are three possible contenders. She secretly invites all three to her wedding, hoping for a happy revelation. The songs of ABBA are practically embedded in our DNA, so much so, that it’s often easy to forget how difficult they are to sing. My guess is that many performers approach Mamma Mia! thinking it will be a fun lark, and then realize the songs demand a multi-octave range, tight harmony, and vocal chords of steel.

This cast is more than up to the task. They bring their own musical styles to some of the songs, pleasingly taking them beyond the ABBA sound, to make them unexpected star-turns, most strikingly the three female leads. Jennifer Nettles (Donna) is a country music star who honed her Broadway skills as Roxie Hart in Chicago. She brings power and subtlety to “The Winner Takes It All” and “Never Left at All,” finding raw emotion while never sacrificing vocal control. She’s the real deal. Tisha Campbell-Martin as Tanya is sexy and funny, and she adds some terrific, crowd-pleasing R&B riffs to “Does Your Mother Know That You’re Out.”

And then there’s the magnificent Lea DeLaria. She has a moment of sheer magic, when she puts the moves on Steven Weber as Bill, that is all about the stage command that only decades of experience can bring. From the first line of “Take a Chance on Me” the crowd is hers: “If you change your mind…” Then the longest pause of the evening, before finally getting to, “I’m the first in line,” then giving a basso embellishment, going down, down, down, and singing “Take a chance on ‘moi’” instead of “me.” The audience goes insane, and the rush lasts for the whole song, as she and Weber stalk one another with comic abandon. And I love seeing her in Michael Krass and Angela Balogh Calin’s often outlandish costumes. (My husband and I once costumed DeLaria in a strapless, white tulle and satin Quinceañera gown, complete with ruffles and crinolines. She wore it with combat boots, headlining a benefit we co-chaired. Dressing her up is in our DNA.)

Hamish Linklater’s Harry reminds me of Tony Curtis gleefully doing Cary Grant in Some Like It Hot. I’ve no idea if it was Linklater’s intention, but it’s as if his affection for Colin Firth’s performance in the same role in the film version inspired him in some wonderful, meta, mind-melding way. He’s clearly having the time of his life. Jaime Camil as Sam is sexy as all get out—you’re not at all surprised Donna carries a secret torch for him 20 years after their break-up. He and Nettles sing beautifully together, and they find an honest, quiet chemistry that grounds their romance nicely.

As the young lovers, Sophie and Sky, Dove Cameron and Corbin Bleu, both veterans of various Disney projects, give lovely, funny performances that mostly hit all the right notes. She has some of the numbers that require the greatest range, and she’s up to it, though she struggles a bit on “Voulez-Vous,” which demands a lot of movement and some tricky notes that are in her break. Bleu sings and moves well, and is affable and charming, if seemingly not all that bothered about whether he and Sophie end up together.

The cavernous stage at the Bowl is challenging. Sometimes performers get marooned with props, too far away from anyplace on stage to put them down; as happens with Sophie and her mother’s diary, and with Harry and a guitar. And creating stage pictures and choreography is tricky when two giant screens on either side of the stage can offer close-ups and medium shots. It’s a necessity in the nearly 18,000-seat house, but it pulls focus. We instinctively want to see the closer shots, sometimes missing out on Marshall’s not inconsiderable achievements.

Yet, in other ways, the Bowl is the perfect setting for this show. As the performers sing and dance in the Greek sunshine, seeing a real breeze blow through their hair is sweet. The outdoor setting also lets the audience dance, jive, and have the time of their lives without the constraints of being in a conventional theater. And illuminated crowns of flowers on women in the audience of all ages adds a romantic glow.

There are two kinds of jukebox musicals. The first, like Jersey Boys, focuses on the story of the real-life group behind the songs. The second, like Mamma Mia!, creates a fictional narrative to string the songs together. The success of the latter approach relies on creating a world that feels authentic to the music, and that allows most of the songs to sound similar enough to what we remember so that we aren’t disappointed, but theatrical enough to move the plot. Theater people sometimes dismiss these shows, seemingly forgetting that the history of musical comedy abounds with examples of fashioning shows around the existing material of various composers and lyricists. I think Mamma Mia! is a better show than it is sometimes given credit for. And the Hollywood Bowl production is a fine feather in its cap.

photos by Craig T. Mathew and Greg Grudt/Mathew Imaging

Mamma Mia!
The Hollywood Bowl
ends on July 30, 2017
for tickets, visit Hollywood Bowl

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Mike M. August 4, 2017 at 2:45 pm

Did we see the same show? I have seen better sets, direction and choreography in high school productions. Tisha Campbell-Martin is a mediocre singer and Hamish Linklater CAN’T sing at all. Jennifer Nettles is a one-note actress. The young lady who played Sophie played the role as if she was still in a Disney channel show, with wooden acting and a jarring valley girl accent.


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