Now playing at the Cadillac Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway.
Escapism comes easily to some people, but I’m not one of them. I don’t have anything against escapism (though I wouldn’t want to live in world where every movie, book and play was mere frivolity), and I enjoy it when it clicks with me, but more often than not, I sit frowning in my seat, picking holes in the plot, overanalyzing the themes, and generally driving everyone around me crazy by subjecting a goofy romantic comedy to the same critical rigor I would, say, a Shakespeare play.
Not wanting to alienate my loving family members, I went to Mamma Mia, a weightless Broadway confection featuring the music of ABBA, with a mantra — It’s only a silly musical — that I silently intoned to myself through the production. The mantra was supposed to prevent me from being a dispassionate killjoy. I’m not sure whether it worked, but it certainly got plenty of use.
Mamma Mia begins with 20-year-old Sophie’s unbelievably stupid plan for finding her biological father: inviting the three possible candidates to her wedding, even though she has never met any of them and none of them know of her existence. It’s only a silly musical. Sophie and her friends take giddy, practically lascivious pleasure in reading Sophie’s mother’s diary about her sexual exploits, making Sophie the only person I have ever known — fictional or otherwise — who delights in knowing the details of her parent’s sex life. It’s only a silly musical. Sophie’s fiancé tells her that she doesn’t need to find her father now that she has him, as a husband makes a great daddy substitute. (Eww.) It’s only a silly musical. A proudly independent middle-aged woman turns into yet another crazed man-chaser. Literally. She’s knocking chairs over to get to the guy. It’s only a silly musical.
I needed the mantra to get me over some of Mamma Mia’s plot contrivances and borderline-offensive grace notes, but to my delight, the charm of the cast and the effervescence of ABBA’s songs made the five-word phrase unnecessary much of the time. It’s difficult to stay mad at a musical that features a number with men dancing in matching wetsuits and flippers.
But the best, most familiar songs go not to that chorus of young men or any of the other fresh-faced stars but to the older actors, those playing Sophie’s mother, Donna; Donna’s best friends; and her old flings. That was probably a great decision from a marketing standpoint — I imagine the average Broadway theatergoer (and certainly the average ABBA fan) is middle-aged, not 20-something — but beyond cold demographics, giving the best material to the older generation works better artistically, too. It would have been obvious, even trite, to have Sophie and her gang sing “Dancing Queen,” but to use it as a showcase for Donna and her two longtime best friends was a masterstroke. Not only do they give the silly tune a touching sense of nostalgia for days gone by, but they also turn into an affirmation of their own continued vitality and desirability. I would have thought “Dancing Queen” had been done to death, but the older trio of women makes it fresh and lively.
I have a weakness for any kind of production in which the performers look like they’re having fun, and all of Mamma Mia’s cast members — young and old — look like they’re having the time of their lives, just like the song says. Yeah, it’s only a silly musical, but even I have to admit that sometimes, silly is sublime.