From left, Leandra Ramm, Joy Sherratt and Krista Wigle perform in the ABBA-fueled musical “Mamma Mia!”
The reasons one might want to see “Mamma Mia!” are many. There’s “Dancing Queen,” for one. Also “Take a Chance on Me,” “S.O.S.,” “Chiquitita,” “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!” and “Money, Money, Money.” As for reasons to see the ABBA jukebox musical aside from the fact that it’s an ABBA musical, well, that’s a more difficult question.
For many, that’s clearly more than enough. A huge hit on the West End and Broadway, the musical premiered in London in 1999 and made its U.S. debut at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre in 2001 before going on to conquer New York. It later went on to become a star-studded 2008 feature film.
The staging that opens Woodminster Summer Musicals’ 51st season at the Woodminster Amphitheater in Oakland’s Joaquin Miller Park is also the first regional production in the Bay Area. It reportedly broke all box office records for the opening weekend of its two-week run, filling the 2,000-seat outdoor amphitheater.
Catherine Johnson’s script concocts a wispy fictional story about 20-year-old bride-to-be Sophie Sheridan (sunny Amanda Farbstein), who finds her mother’s diary from around the time she was conceived in the swinging ’70s, and invites three different men she’s never met to her wedding because any one of them might be her father.
There’s Bill, a restless travel writer (cheerful Dwight Mahabir, only occasionally attempting the character’s Australian accent); Harry (sedately cultured Geoffrey Blaisdell), a posh British banker who was a punk back in those days; and Sam (amiable Robert Moorhead), an architect, who broke mama Donna’s heart way back then.
It all takes place on a Greek island, where Donna (a stressed out and overwhelmed Joy Sherratt) owns a taverna, a kind of restaurant. It sounds like she’s lived there ever since that crazy summer 21 years ago. Since the 1970s backstory helps justify all that ABBA music, the play is pretty firmly set circa 1999.
Nobody ever actually mentions the 1970s Swedish pop group in the play. They just break into ABBA songs at the drop of a hat. The strange thing is how awkwardly the songs are shoehorned into the story, considering that the story is just a thin pretext for the songs in the first place. The lyrics seldom suit the setup, leading to awkward moments such as when Sam sings to Sophie as if she were his ex-wife back when they were breaking up (“Knowing Me, Knowing You”). The idea is that he’s explaining to his maybe-daughter that marriage doesn’t always work out, but that’s a weird way to do it.
As staged by artistic director Joel Schlader, the Woodminster production is high-spirited and celebratory, with a lot of fun disco-inspired choreography by Jody Jaron. The onstage orchestra conducted by music director Daniel Thomas (with no less than four keyboard players) gamely breezes through the songbook of ABBA hits and lesser known numbers. Between the arrangements and the mic levels, the backing vocals occasionally clash with the lead vocals, especially when they’re not singing harmony but a separate, contrasting background part.
Leandra Ramm and Krista Wigle considerably enliven the proceedings as Donna’s old friends and former bandmates — vampy multiple-divorcee Tanya and laid-back, cheerful Rosie, respectively. When they inevitably reunite as Donna and the Dynamos, it gives an opportunity for costumer Donna Page to shine with a few outrageously gaudy ABBA-style jumpsuits. There’s a lot of “kids today” tut-tutting from the elders, but they’re the ones that don’t approve of marriage and wonder whatever happened to free love.
It’s hard to have much investment in the wedding or Donna’s old flames, but none of that really matters. The only suspense is in wondering how they’re going to squeeze in “Super Trouper” or whether we’ll hear “Waterloo.” Saying “Thank You for the Music” is the name of the game.
Contact Sam Hurwitt at firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow him at Twitter.com/shurwitt.
By Benny Andersson, Bjorn Ulvaeus and Catherine Johnson, presented by Woodminster Summer Musicals
Through: July 16
Where: Woodminster Amphitheater, Joaquin Miller Park, 3300 Joaquin Miller Road, Oakland
Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes, one intermission
Tickets: $31-$64; 510-531-9597, www.woodminster.com