“MAMMA MIA!” through May 26, Pioneer Theatre Company, 300 S. 1400 East (801-581-6961 or pioneertheatre.org); running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (one intermission)
SALT LAKE CITY — When the musical “Mamma Mia!” first opened on Broadway in 2001, New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley said the show was akin to a Hostess Cupcake: enjoyable but not very substantial.
But when the show’s big-screen adaptation hit theaters in 2008, many critics and viewers praised it as a celebration of women, with its story of a strong, independent single mother raising her daughter to be equally strong and independent.
Pioneer Theatre Company’s production of “Mamma Mia!” which runs through May 26, hits a solid middle ground between these two camps: While most of the show maintains a light, fluffy, party-like atmosphere, the strong performances of its female leads allow for a small glimpse of the thought-provoking.
The show, filled with classic ABBA tunes like “Dancing Queen,” “S.O.S.” and “Take a Chance on Me,” features music and lyrics by ABBA’s Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson with a book by Catherine Johnson. As popular as the jukebox musical is, most people know its story thanks to the hit 2008 big-screen adaptation starring Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan, which grossed more than $609 million worldwide and spawned a sequel slated for release this July.
“Mamma Mia!” is basically a shameless vehicle for ABBA songs that are tied — albeit very loosely and, at times, awkwardly (cough, cough, “The Name of the Game”) — to the story of a young woman who wants to invite the father she’s never known to her upcoming wedding. But since she doesn’t know which of her mother’s three former boyfriends is her father, she invites all three, resulting in a complicated blast from the past for her mother.
Whereas other musicals use songs to further the plot, “Mamma Mia!” uses them to gratify the audience, but you won’t hear many complaining about it. The mostly upbeat songs may not contain the most profound of messages, but they do create an almost tangible sense of joy that make you want to stand up in the aisle and bust a move.
Coleen Sexton ably leads PTC’s production in the role of Donna Sheridan, the single mom about to face her worst nightmare in the form of her three ex-boyfriends. Sexton finds a way to balance moments of not taking herself and the show too seriously with moments of deep emotion. She goes from performing “Super Trouper” in all her silly, platform-shoed glory to the heartstrings-pulling “Slipping Through My Fingers” (all you moms out there, grab your tissues) to “The Winner Takes It All,” where she strikes a balance between being vulnerable while also turning the song into a power ballad of sorts.
Sexton is joined by other equally adept actresses, including Kathryn Brunner as Donna’s daughter, Sophie Sheridan, and Amy Bodnar and Utah actress Mary Fanning Driggs as Donna’s best friends, Tanya and Rosie. Brunner portrays a peppy, full-of-sunshine Sophie who also knows her own mind, and Bodnar and Driggs play the ever-loyal best friends with plenty of sass and humor. Any scene where Bodnar, Driggs and Sexton appear onstage together is a highlight, particularly “Chiquitita” and “Dancing Queen.”
Director/choreographer Patricia Wilcox can also be added to the list of capable women on the show’s team. Her choreography is full of energy and often has an air of frivolity to it — making it a big contributor to the show’s party vibe. If the crowd’s reaction serves as any indicator, Wilcox’s choreography for “Lay All Your Love on Me,” particularly for the flipper-clad male ensemble, was certainly a high point among the fast-paced dance numbers throughout.
Donna’s former boyfriends — Sam, played by Brian Sutherland; Bill, played by Dan Sharkey; and Harry, played by Paul Castree — play their varying quirks and personalities well, although it's hard to imagine any of them ever really being a love interest for the leading lady. In particular, Sam is the one Donna is supposed to have been pining after all these years, but Sutherland and Sexton seem oddly matched and never quite reach a convincing level of chemistry.1 comment on this story
Setting that complaint — as well as the small gripe that the live orchestra couldn’t quite figure out what volume it should be playing at — aside, PTC’s “Mamma Mia!” ultimately accomplishes what it set out to do: Give those in the audience a good time and put them in “the mood for a dance."
Content advisory: “Mamma Mia” contains instances of sexual innuendo and swearing as well as some sexually suggestive choreography. The film version of the musical was rated PG-13, which would be an accurate categorization for this stage production.