AMERICAN FORK — If I am driving in the car with people of various music tastes, the surest way to please the crowd is to put on ABBA. Their music is feel-good, timeless, and works just as well on stage as it does on a road trip. Given all of ABBA’s hits, it is a wonder to me that no one strung the Swedish band’s oeuvre together into a jukebox musical before playwright Catherine Johnson did in 1999. Mamma Mia! boasts a 16-year run on Broadway, but most people have probably enjoyed the show through the 2008 film. Now. Utah County can feel like a dancing queen again thanks to American Fork Community Theater’s production of Mamma Mia! directed by Colleen Carrasco.
The musical takes place soon before the wedding of Sophie (played by Kenna Carrasco), a young woman who grew up with her single mother Donna (played by Ashley McKinnon) on an island in Greece. When she learns that her father may be one of three men that she has never met but that her mother slept with, she invites them to the wedding to identify her true father. To the chagrin of Donna, who never wanted to see her former lovers, the men arrive, and a tale of paternity and romance ensues.
In general, Mamma Mia!’s strong point is the music. The music direction by Noelle Conder ensured to preserve the musical glory of the show, but I was more invested in the songs than I was the characters, in part because of the script and the production. There was little time for the drama to cook because the songs came so quickly. When the music did come, it did not always add to the plot in a meaningful way. I loved listening to McKinnon slay the riffs in “Money Money Money,” but I am not sure how relevant Donna’s money problems are to the rest of the show. It cannot be her “I want” song because she does not spend the rest of the show trying to fix her finances. Johnson’s work, in its rockiest moments, uses song for the sake of spectacle and not narrative.
That narrative, which was thin enough, was further diluted by the cast’s earnest but unbelievable acting. Andrea Chapman (playing the role of Rosie) was a little too peppy in general for her comedic, man-hating lines to make sense. I felt uncomfortable watching Sophie and her fiancée Sky (played by Danny Keetch) flirt and touch in “Lay All Your Love on Me” without solid chemistry. A bright spot came from one of Donna’s friends, Tanya (played by Julia Jolley), who struck an engaging balance between flirtatious and dismissive in “Does Your Mother Know?” I also liked her choice in “Chiquita” to comfort Donna sarcastically as if she throws tantrums all the time, which injected comedy into a scene that otherwise would have been straightforward and uninteresting.
Kenna Carrasco and McKinnon, although not family in real life, took the idea of being related in the show to another level with their similarly bland styles of acting. Besides their matching wavy, blonde hair, I noticed with both of them a lack of effort to act as if they were actually in the circumstances of the show. With the brunt of the show on their backs, the two made it an enjoyable production vocally and less so dramatically. Although their voices were well-suited to the pop style of the show, it was unfortunate that the wrinkly cyclorama had more texture than the simple portrayals of their characters.
Where the storytelling fell short, the spectacle compensated. The plain white sets with blue shutters in imitation of a Greek island were clean and easy to accept. Thanks to Gillian Ponce’s stage management, the show did not lose its momentum because some set transitions happened mid-song. I was truly impressed with the blending between Donna and her friends’ voices at the beginning of “Super Trouper.” The songs without the ensemble on stage, such as “Winner Takes it All,” could have used some more blocking and storytelling to keep the pace going. But the energy would pick right back up for bigger numbers when the ensemble shone with Chantelle Wells’s choreography. I liked the sharp and sensual movement of “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!”—movement that could have been stronger if the cast had embodied it a little more. Another choreographic highlight was the men dancing in flippers and wetsuits in “Lay All Your Love on Me.” “Waterloo” featured colorful and very ’70s costumes for the leading ladies and Donna’s three lovers. Those costumes, designed by Marie Crawford, combined with the ensemble in white and a rainbow-lit background created an exciting picture to end the show on. I would be remiss to not also mention some of the fun lighting, including a disco ball and strobe lights, that turned the show almost into a concert.
Often, the draw of musical theatre is in its “wow” factor and not serious, well-done drama. Given that precedent, this production of Mamma Mia! did what it needed to do. But I cannot help but wonder what the show would have been like if it were just a concert: a night of ABBA glory without the problematic overlay of a narrative. After all, I did not leave the theatre grateful I had witnessed a life-changing story; all I thought was, “Thank you for the music.”