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‘Mamma Mia!’ Dances into Detroit on its 25th Anniversary Tour!

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Jukebox musicals seem to be all the rage right now when it comes to Broadway shows, with two major varieties dominating the landscape. There’s one camp of this type of musical, such as & Juliet, which features pop songs from a variety of artists, weaved together to tell a connective story. On the other side of the coin are jukebox musicals that feature one artist’s or group’s music almost exclusively throughout the show. These shows, such as The Cher Show and Ain’t Too Proud, are more autobiographical in nature, drawing in a specific type of audience who is familiar with their work. Mamma Mia!, however, exists somewhere in the middle, as this musical is developed around the works of ABBA, but features an original story weaving the songs seamlessly together.

Premiering back in 1999, Mamma Mia! was written by Catherine Johnson, who also wrote the screenplay for the film and its sequel, and promoted as Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus’ show, as they were the composers of the music for ABBA. Beginning with a run in The West End, the musical has continued to find success across countless productions and tours, with the show celebrating its 25th anniversary this year!

With its current stop in Detroit, I was beyond excited to finally see it live, as Mamma Mia! has always been one of my favorite musicals to watch when I’m feeling down. How exactly does the stage musical compare to the film version of Mamma Mia!? Read on to find out!

[Warning: spoilers from Mamma Mia! are below!]

An impending wedding and three potential fathers in Mamma Mia!

I’m sure many of us theater lovers know the story of Donna, Sophie, and her three potential fathers by heart, as Mamma Mia! has stood the test of time. For those who might not be as familiar with the story, let’s take a moment to explore just what is happening on the Greek island of Kalokairi.

Opening with a prologue set about three months before the main events of Act I and II, we meet 20-year-old Sophie Sheridan (Alisa Melendez) under the cover of night. With only a brilliant full moon illuminating her way, she heads to a mailbox with three envelopes in her hand, invitations to her wedding. Signed and sealed, she sends them off to Harry Bright (u/s Blake Price), Sam Carmichael (Victor Wallace), and Bill Austin (Jim Newman). So why exactly is she sending these three men invitations to her wedding in the middle of the night? Well, it turns out that one of them is her father.

Sophie was raised by her single mother Donna (Christine Sherrill) for 20 years on this secluded Greek island. However, with her impending nuptials, she wants to learn who her father is and have him walk her down the aisle. Perhaps that seems like the reasonable thing to do to someone lacking a fully developed prefrontal cortex, but her decision lacks a lot of forethought, the first of which impacts her mother negatively. 

Mamma Mia! Sky and Sophie
Sky (Grant Reynolds) and Sophie (Alisa Melendez). Mamma Mia! (Joan Marcus).

You see, Sophie has put this entire plan into motion without informing her mother of it. So imagine Donna’s surprise when three men from her past, all of whom could potentially be her child’s father, show up the day before Sophie’s wedding. The shock alone of one ex-partner showing up out of the blue would be enough to send someone into a tailspin, let alone three.

Together with her two best friends, Rosie (u/s Jasmine Overbaugh) and Tayna (Jalynn Steele), Donna will do everything in her power to make sure Sophie’s wedding to Skye (Grant Reynolds) goes off without a hitch. Sophie, on the other hand, has a plan of her own and will stop at nothing to discover an important part of her identity.

As Mamma Mia! builds, and the wedding inches closer to the forefront, stress and anxiety build for many of the characters. How exactly can everyone balance all the secrets, who is actually the father, and are there happy endings in place for all involved? Those familiar with the film already know how the show wraps up, but there’s a different type of energy in seeing Mamma Mia! live and on stage after knowing the other adaptation so intimately.

Here we go… again… in this musical inspired by ABBA songs

As a psychologist, and someone who has struggled with anxiety and depression throughout his years, I understand the appeal of familiarity when it comes to media that we take in. I’m sure we’ve all heard the term “comfort show”, which is thrown around quite frequently nowadays.

When someone is feeling sad or anxious, turning on something they know intimately makes them feel comfortable and safe. Which is the watchword honestly, comfortability. It’s difficult to be stressed or anxious when we know exactly what to expect from something. I know every time I turn on Disney’s Beauty and the Beast exactly what I’m going to get, so much so that I can recite the film word for word and song by song.

This is the exact feeling I received with this 25th anniversary production of Mamma Mia!, it was comfortable because I knew exactly what would happen in each scene. For fans of the movie, you’ll be glad to know that the film is an almost one-for-one adaptation of the show, although there are some small changes in the stage musical.

Some songs were rearranged, such as “Our Last Summer”, which is a duet between Harry and Donna on stage compared to a piece between Harry and Sophie. Which honestly makes much more sense, as it almost felt kind of creepy in the movie. There are also a few songs that were removed from the film when it transitioned from the stage, but those are once again present in all their glory.

For the most part, Mamma Mia! is exactly the musical that I’ve come to know and love, so that was a fantastic feeling to have. All my favorite moments were there in front of my eyes, playing out just like I’ve come to know them, meaning that it felt like returning to an old friend after a while. One could also argue that because it’s exactly the same, there’s nothing new to expect from it, which could be seen as a detriment.

I know what you might be asking, how can the reasoning be both a plus and a minus? Truthfully, it depends on how you’re looking at it. For some, this tour is exactly what they are going to want, but for others who are used to going to the theater to see something new or novel, they might be disappointed. There are no major changes to the story, the songs are sung the same way they’ve been sung for 25 years, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

However, there might be some who walk away feeling content but not satisfied with a musical that is perhaps starting to feel a bit dated. With Mamma Mia!, you get exactly what you go in knowing it’s going to give you, and for me, that was all I truly wanted. For me, this wasn’t a negative and I hope that it doesn’t read off that way, but I can understand for others in the crowd why this sentiment might hold some weight.

The star power is strong in Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus’ Mamma Mia!

It truly feels like the producers are pulling out all the stops for this 25th-anniversary tour, as the actors in this production are out of this world. I felt like everyone present was in the room with greatness, having the likes of Christine Sherrill on stage once again as Donna.

Sherrill starred as Donna in a Las Vegas residency, with her expertise and tenure as the character showing in nearly every scene. She knows the role in and out, commanding her presence on stage through both her acting and vocal chops. Donna is a strong character, having raised Sophie by herself for 20 years and also keeping the island bustling with life, which Sherill manages to show with such ease.

Mamma Mia! (L to R) Jalynn Steele (Tanya), Christine Sherrill (Donna Sheridan), and Carly Sakolove (Rosie) Photo by Joan Marcus
(L to R) Jalynn Steele (Tanya), Christine Sherrill (Donna Sheridan), and Carly Sakolove (Rosie). Mamma Mia! (Joan Marcus).

Alisa Melendez is truly the star of the show though as the bouncy and lively Sophie. She’s a top-notch performer who easily keeps up with the best on stage and outshines almost everyone else. From the first moment she came onto stage to deliver the three letters, I was infatuated with her star power. It was fascinating to watch her juggle so many moving pieces, especially as the show progresses into pure chaotic energy. Her ability to volley with some of the veteran actors on stage is something remarkable to behold, making Melendez a person to watch out for on Broadway.

While these two were superb in their two roles, there truly wasn’t a poorly cast role in the entire production. From the three potential fathers to Donna’s best friends, everyone played their part excellently. I was particularly fond of Jalynn Steele and Jasmine Overbaugh as Tanya and Rosie, respectively, as they both brought the majority of the comedy in Mamma Mia! There wasn’t a scene with either one of these actresses that wasn’t side-splitting, causing the entire audience to roar with laughter. Both Overbaugh and Steele played off each other and Sherrill perfectly, reading as best friends who’ve been reunited after a long absence. The chemistry was vibrant and one of the best parts of the show.

The set of Mamma Mia! is simple but effective in its design

One of the main differences between seeing a show in NYC compared to when it’s on its tour is the set. In NYC, the sets can be more elaborate, as they aren’t taken down and moved from city to city. They can offer more mechanics, and fancier pieces, but your sets tend to be more simplistic, but still large enough to get their point across. For Mamma Mia!, this holds true, but I was pleasantly surprised at how effective the set was for moving the story from scene to scene. 

It consisted mainly of two large structures, representing the architecture of the hotel Donna is running, which were spun around into different configurations, depending on where the scene was set. Never in my wildest dreams would I think a simple spinning of one piece or another might entirely change the environment. With the added effects of different pieces lowered from the ceiling or a changing of the light, you are transported across the island for whatever scenes are needed. It truly felt ingenious to me, although I’m not quite sure why I was so enraptured with the simple but effective design of this tour. But it worked for me in ways that others who have come to Detroit haven’t.

This classic musical is a sure hit for any lover of theater

It’s almost impossible to not go and see Mamma Mia! and not have a great time. While the story itself starts to feel dated, the mixture of loveable characters, talented actors, and songs that are both catchy and familiar, it’s easy to still back and just have a ball.

It’s a safe bet for all levels of theater-goers, from those who haven’t seen many and veterans like myself who have seen them all. It’s perfect for families, although you might want to steer clear of bringing too young of children, as the stage production of Mamma Mia! is much hornier than the film.

That being said, except for a few jokes that might go over their heads, it’s a show that will make everyone dance and jive in their seats. So lace up your platform boots and pull out your spandex because Mamma Mia! is definitely a show you’ll want to see when it comes to a city near you.

Mamma Mia! is currently touring North America and is in Detroit for a few more days! Let us know on social media @mycosmiccircus or in The Cosmic Circus Discord if you have seen this musical live or plan to do so when it comes to a city near you!

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Brian Kitson

Working hard to bring you the latest news and thoughtful analysis of all things nerdy!

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