Review: Jennifer Nettles and Dove Cameron Lead an Exuberant "MAMMA MIA" at the Hollywood Bowl
Michael L. Quintos
Arguably one of musical theater's more enjoyable jukebox musicals, the crowd-pleasing, ABBA-centric musical “MAMMA MIA!” aims to entertain its audience, all while trying to provide a much more interesting way to experience the ubiquitous pop catalog of one of the most successful pop music groups of the previous century. While, sure, the show isn't exactly known for being sharply crafted, having deep motifs, or for being included in the pantheon of history's greatest musicals, the wildly celebrated, long-running Broadway musical does manage to be a nostalgia-baiting confection of fun that encourages a happy time in the theater.
In an era of continuing sarcasm, skepticism, and seriousness, who knew that this now almost two-decade old musical (featuring four-decade old songs) would now feel like a breath of fresh air?
That is certainly the feeling you get from the brand new, all-star iteration now at the Hollywood Bowl through Sunday, July 30. Directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall, this year's annual celebrity stunt-casted summer musical at the historic 18,000-seat L.A. institution is a joyfully bubbly production, bursting with silliness, sass, and even a little heart. And most significant of all, the production's assembled big-name cast are all pretty terrific in their respective roles, and a select few even stepped up with some amazing vocal performances throughout the show that will keep you enchanted from song to song (which, as of the publishing of this review, may have already made its way from audience member's smart phones and onto the internet).
So, wow, let's talk about Jennifer Nettles. Most know her, of course, as a Grammy Award-winning country music superstar who has beautifully transitioned from being the lead singer of Sugarland to a solo career that finds her frequently dueting with the likes of Beyoncé and Lady Gaga on concert stages. She made her Broadway debut in 2015, stepping in briefly into the role of Roxie Hart in the long-running production of “CHICAGO.”
But judging by her incredible work here in this too-brief three-show production, she could, without question, be one of musical theater's undiscovered powerhouses. In “MAMMA MIA,” Nettles plays Donna, an American expat single mom who owns and runs a modest tervana on the Greek island of Kalokairi. Unbeknownst to her, her engaged young daughter Sophie—played by the lovely, angelic-voiced Dove Cameron who will surely win your heart after seeing this—has decided to send out wedding ceremony invites under Donna's name to three separate men. Why? Because one of the three men may very well be Sophie's biological father!
This, as expected, sets up a madcap weekend—set to an ABBA soundtrack, natch—that finds Donna revisiting and, at times, confronting her past, enduring a roller coaster of emotions that allows Nettles to fully display both her genuine acting chops and her superb singing talent. Whether working with comedic or dramatic material, she seems to be equally natural with either and it truly shows. Her belt-tactic version of "The Winner Takes It All" on opening night was divaliciously perfect.
Dear Broadway producers, please get this talented lady into a brand new musical production ASAP, please.
You can also send the same request on behalf of Cameron, who is a glorious, sweet presence whenever she enters the stage. The Disney channel starlet and Hairspray Live! standout pushed through opening night mic problems like a pro, still easily managing to wow the audience with her buttery singing voice that, I'm not kidding, felt like a warm hug.
Adding to the enjoyment of this “MAMMA MIA” production is seeing (and hearing!) an impressive, big-name ensemble turn in memorable performances that doesn't ever feel showboat-y, lackluster, or scenery-chewing. Corbin Bleu is convincingly romantic as Sky, Sophie's fiancé. Crowd favorite Jaime Camil (CW's Jane the Virgin) turns in a very likable performance as architect Sam Carmichael, one of Donna's former beaus who broke her heart and married someone else. TV staple Steven Weber is a charmer as writer/adventurer Bill Austin, another former boyfriend of Donna's. Awesome scene-stealer Hamish Linklater is a laugh riot as Harry Bright, who is, you guessed it, another guy from Donna's past. As the clearly least musical of the the bunch, the hilarious Linklater cheekily turns in a performance that ups the endearment quotient and the over-affected British accent to compensate, rendering his singing to be quite adorkable, more than anything.
But as outstanding the men in the cast are, “MAMMA MIA” is really a showcase for the women. Besides Nettles and Cameron's dream mother-daughter pairing, the show's brilliant casting choices also brought in musical vets Tisha Campbell-Martin (Tanya) and Lea DeLaria (Rosie), who play Donna's best friends and her former girl-group co-members. On the surface, the three of them could not be more different, but yet Nettles' scenes with Campbell-Martin and DeLaria are undeniably giddy fun, particularly when they all start singing together, producing some magnificent harmonies. Even better: Campbell-Martin's diva riffs made me cheer while DeLaria's bawdiness made me crack up. More, please.
Meanwhile, the hardworking young men and women of the ensemble (many of whom I recognized due to multiple trips to see “FROZEN” at Disney California Adventure Park) were all excellent, dancing and singing up a storm with great precision, enthusiasm and gusto. (Special shout-out to Payson Lewis, who managed to elevate his minor role of Pepper into a standout moment and throwing the crowd—and Tisha Campbell—into a tizzy).
So, is there anything about the production that I truly didn't like? Well, the only thing that left me a little disappointed is what transpires before the musical even got started. As per tradition, Bowl productions kick things off with the National Anthem. This production's offering? A pleasantly-sung "Star Spangled Banner" mashed up with ABBA music and lyrics. While it certainly earns points for creativity, I'm not so sure how to take hearing our country's sacrosanct national anthem getting an unnecessary ABBA remix.
But admittedly, I was initially a little… well, meh about the announcement that the Hollywood Bowl was going with “MAMMA MIA!” this year for its big summer all-star musical, which has become the West Coast's chance to see TV and film actors jump into the musical theater pool while on their respective summer hiatuses. But as casting notices were soon slowly trickling in, the excitement grew and I became cautiously optimistic. Let me tell you, this production was a genuinely pleasant surprise I wish I could see multiple times. From the sets to the staging to the brilliant musicality of the orchestra and the dynamic dance numbers, there's plenty to love about this production.
Perhaps in proper hands, this musical can be much funnier and more delightful than it originally is meant to be.
I've been normally ambivalent about this musical in the past, but this production truly won me over by the time intermission rolled around. I laughed out loud much more alongside fellow audience members and I bopped my head to the rhythms of the music with less abandon. In previous productions, I've always noted that the ABBA music itself is the sole draw to the musical, and so it's not a stretch to feel that “MAMMA MIA” is using the nostalgic properties of the songs to distract the audience from seeing its weaker traits. It's no accident that the audience is treated to a two-song encore that finds everyone on their feet dancing and cheering and singing along—you know, so we can keep this "party" going and give you a send-off that will hopefully eradicate any of the weaker parts from your memory.
Well, this production also offered the same two-song encore which also prompted spirited dancing in the audience. This time, though, I didn't want the party to end.
Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ
Photographs by Craig T. Mathew and Greg Grudt/Mathew Imaging at the Hollywood Bowl, provided courtesy of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association. Review also published in BroadwayWorld.
Performances of MAMMA MIA, featuring book by Catherine Johnson, music and lyrics by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus with Stig Anderson, direction and choreography by Kathleen Marshall, and musical direction by David Holcenberg continue at the Hollywood Bowl for two additional performances on Saturday, July 29 (at 8:00 pm) and Sunday, July 30 (at 7:30 pm). Tickets are still available, and may be purchased online at HollywoodBowl.com, by phone at 323-850-2000, in person at the Hollywood Bowl box office, or by calling Ticketmaster at 800.745.3000, and at all Ticketmaster outlets.