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VACATION BLOG - Mamma Mia! mess

by Chris Conley

Today's blog comes from Amtrak 141, as the Conley family begins the long train ride back to the Midwest.

NEWS BLOG (WSAU)  I've written before about the challenges of keeping up the quality of long running Broadway shows. The best time to see something is within the first year while the original cast is intact. Swapping in new cast members usually isn't smooth. Replacements get less practice time, and often aren't as good. If the show is a long-running hit, it will sell more tickets based on name and reputation than who's in the cast.

Only theater insiders can tell you who's starring in Phantom of the Opera or Chicago... they're not household names, probably cutting their teeth on one of the national tours until the call comes for them to get off the interstate coach and into the Broadway production. These should still be high-level, competent performers. They've reached the top of the live-theater world, and that should say something about them.

But that's not the case with Mamma Mia!  My daughter and I attended on Wednesday night and saw a poorly performed and poorly cast production -- far below Broadway (and $97 a ticket) standards.

If you don't know, this is the play with a story woven around Abba songs from the 1970s. The catch is how easy it is to reproduce the group's sound and how seamlessly the music is made to fit into the storyline. The two main characters are Sophie, the 20-year-old who's getting married, and Donna, her 30-something single mother. Our Sophie, Lorrie Veldheer, inherited the role in June. Her singing is poor, as she screeched her way from opening number to final bow. Sense of pitch is nowhere to be found, and several times during the performance she had that I'm-not-quite-sure-what-I'm-doing look. There were other times that cast members had trouble holding their in-character faces, as if to say 'yes, pardon our dust.' Donna, played by Judy McLean, was a much better vocalist -  but she has a classic-theater voice that doesn't fit the pop/rock songs in this show. So the music sounds like Abba, but, like at an out-of-the-way karaoke bar, the voices don't match.

I'm sure the producers of Mamma Mia! know as much about Broadway quality as I do. They know their show got good initial reviews, and is chugging along in the 12th year of an open-ended run. Surely the also know that their present-day cast in turning out sub-standard schlock show-after-show. They don't care. They're grossing $900,000 a week and are pocking big money. Maybe they figure that the out-of-town tourists don't know the difference anyway.

The real decision comes in October. Mamma Mia! is losing its theater to the new musical production of Rocky. Their show will shut down for a month, and is supposed to transfer to the smaller Broadhurst Theater. With 400-fewer seats to sell for each performance, it's entirely possible that Mamma Mia! could limp along for several more years. But I saw this show during its pre-Broadway try outs in Toronto, and it was fine-tuned and sharp. Others who know how its supposed to be performed are bound to say "what the hell's going on here?" 

Chris Conley