No 1950s musical, but Momma Mia! still charms

Dominic Cooper and Amanda Seyfried are candy for the eyes and ears.

Universal Pictures photos

Dominic Cooper and Amanda Seyfried are candy for the eyes and ears.

As a stage musical, Mamma Mia! is mainly a nostalgia trip for baby boomers with a fondness for Abba, the spandexed Swedish supergroup from the '70s. The movie has much of the same appeal, with Meryl Streep as onetime leader of a girl power band who now runs a Greek hotel. Mamma Mia!, still going strong on Broadway after almost seven years, has never presumed to be anything but a goof, and a lot of its ramshackle charm gets lost when blown up for the big screen. It's one of those movie musicals where people breaking into song at the drop of a hat or the sudden presence of an orchestra's swelling strings seems particularly dumb.

Still, the Abba songs are potent stuff. I went to a press screening of Mamma Mia! and saw a row of jaded movie critics madly tapping their feet along to Super Trouper, Voulez-Vous and other infectious tunes.

Here are a few ways the live version of Mamma Mia! differs from the movie:

More ABBA songs. The stage musical has 24 numbers plus three encores. The movie score also lists 24 numbers, but some are reprises or are truncated. You won't hear Under Attack, One of Us and Knowing Me, Knowing You in the movie. There is one song in the movie that isn't performed onstage, a duet by Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan of When All Is Said and Done.

Less logic. Playwright Catherine Johnson crafted the story of Mamma Mia! to fit songs from the Abba catalog, and that is part of the fun of the stage show, the illogic of it all. The movie alternates between dogged realism, perhaps besotted by the gorgeous Greek island setting, and music video slickness in numbers like Dancing Queen. Director Phyllida Lloyd, a Shakespearean by trade, is no Julie Taymor, who handled the essential ridiculousness of the movie musical so imaginatively in Across the Universe.

No stars. The stage Mamma Mia! has never been about stars, with casting that runs to nonhousehold names like Louise Pitre (the original Donna on Broadway). The movie, of course, is laden with stars, few known for their singing. Streep is a treat as Donna, wearing a straw hat and tooling around the island in a Jeep with gal-pals Christine Baranski (who has musical theater credits) and Julie Walters.

The singing of Brosnan, as one of Donna's old boyfriends, is persistently flat, but his duet with Streep, S.O.S., is a charmer. Amanda Seyfried, the dewy blond playing Donna's daughter, is terrific in Honey, Honey and The Name of the Game (cut from the movie but on the CD).

Abba songwriter Benny Andersson produced the soundtrack, and his percussive piano and keyboards drive the score.

As catchy as the songs are, Abba was more of a European fave in its heyday, and it will be interesting to see how the movie fares outside the United States. The casting has a trans-Atlantic, something-for-everyone flavor, with Streep and Baranski for the American audience, Brosnan, Colin Firth and Walters for the Brits and Stellan Skarsgard for the Swedes.

You can't really say that Mamma Mia! has been newly interpreted, since the creative leadership remained intact from stage to screen. Producer Judy Craymer, playwright Johnson and director Lloyd did their thing in both versions.

For moviegoers curious about the stage show, Mamma Mia! will be at Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center Aug. 19-24.

John Fleming can be reached at fleming@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8716.

John Fleming's grade: B

No 1950s musical, but Momma Mia! still charms 07/16/08 [Last modified: Thursday, July 24, 2008 8:06am]

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