Theater: Colorful Spectacle

‘Mamma Mia!’ brings music to the mountain

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This year’s Mountain Play features the musical ‘Mamma Mia!’ atop Mount Tamalpais; a 30-person cast sings and dances to the songs of Abba. Photo courtesy of Mountain Play.

To get right down to the nitty-gritty, here’s a prediction: In a few weeks, when the last rumble of cheers and applause dies down and Cushing Memorial Amphitheatre falls silent, Mamma Mia! will go down as one of the most popular productions in the history of Marin’s annual Mountain Play.

That forecast surprises me, but only because, going in, I wasn’t familiar with the show, or with  Abba, the Swedish group that became such an international success during the 1970s and early ’80s with their happy sound of soft rock. Two-and-a-half hours later, I understood why it had attracted such a following.

Let’s be clear. Mamma Mia! doesn’t deserve to be ranked among the greats of American musical theater. It belongs to the category of what the music industry calls—somewhat condescendingly—“jukebox musicals” that showcase a group of songs by a well-known composer or performer by linking them with a wispy, often almost non-existent narrative thread (a long list is included in Mountain Play’s program). Most fail, because musical theater is more than a collection of songs that don’t go anywhere dramatically, and the actors/singers are rarely able to re-create the excitement generated by the original performers.

The London creative circle that assembled Mamma Mia! in the late 1990s—led by producer Judy Cramer and librettist Catherine Johnson—must have been aware of the pitfalls, because they managed to take a simple but compelling story and embed 22 songs by Abba’s Benny Andersson, Bjorn Ulvaeus and Stig Anderson that cover a multitude of timeless personal subjects. The songs continue to resonate with audiences, while also providing wonderful opportunities for group choreography.

All of these virtues are fully realized in Mountain Play’s current production, directed with a rare combination of emotional sensitivity and sense of spectacle by Jay Manley. The setting is a fictional Greek island called Kalokairi, which scenic designer Andrea Bechert renders as three whitewashed structures on turntables (converting exterior to interior), surrounded by the crystal waters of the Aegean Sea. Twenty-year-old Sophie (Carrie Lyn Brandon) is preparing to marry her longtime sweetheart Sky (Jake Gale) the following day, but she has never known who her father is and wishes that he could be present to walk her down the aisle. By accident, she has discovered her mother Donna’s journal, in which she relates that around the time of Sophie’s conception, she had sexual relations with three different men: Sam (Tyler McKenna); an American architect who designed the taverna owned and operated by Donna; Harry, a wealthy British banker (Sean O’Brien); and Bill (David Schiller), an Australian writer and adventurer. Thinking that she can identify her father if they meet in person, she secretly invites all three to the wedding, and they accept, arriving from the mainland together on a small boat that—in a striking coup de theatre—glides in and out with no visible power source.

This sets up a chain of reactions, both comic and serious, that make up the bulk of the musical. Other characters, too numerous to mention individually, join in a colorful, free-for-all of song and dance (choreography by Nicole Helfer and Zoe Swenson-Graham), ably supported by an eight-piece band under Music Director Jon Gallo. Suffice it to say that the entire 30-member ensemble is of a caliber seldom encountered in productions that combine a few Actors’ Equity performers (two in this case) with talented community actors.

What became clear to me at show’s end was that Abba’s tunes and lyrics touch on universal themes not normally found in pop music, and they do it with a simple honesty that connects emotionally with their audience. In a program note, Manley relates how good he felt while driving home after evening rehearsals. I felt that way too, after visiting the mountain. The Germans have a word for it: “Gemutlichkeit.” If ever it was needed, it’s now.

NOW PLAYING: Mamma Mia! runs Sundays through June 17 in the Cushing Memorial Amphitheatre, Mt. Tamalpais State Park; 415/383-1100; mountainplay.org.

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