BWW Review: MAMMA MIA May Induce 70s Flashbacks

As a diehard rock and roll fan of groups like the Rolling Stones and the Who, I have been harboring a deep, dark secret. The second album I bought growing up was ABBA's Gold. The quartet, which was Sweden's second largest export next to Volvo, had a knack for producing hum-worthy harmonies and catchy choruses that stick in your subconscious for months and months to come.

There within lies the danger of watching a musical like ABBA's MAMMA MIA. After watching the Weathervane Playhouse's production of the musical, I found still humming those long forgotten tunes that had resided on the dusty back shelves of my brain's musical library.

The musical has four shows remaining with 7 p.m. performances on Dec. 28, 29 and 30 as well as a 2 p.m. matinee on Dec. 28 at the Weathervane Playhouse (100 Price Road in Newark).

MAMMA MIA falls into the uneven territory of "jukebox musicals," in which a show draws most of its songs from a group's catalog or from songs from a certain genre. Some, like JERSEY BOYS, could be termed as biographical jukeboxes, using the music from Frankie Valle and The Four Seasons, to tell the story of the band's rise and fall. Some, like The Who's TOMMY, are called "rock operas" and draw their material from a single album. Finally there's some jukebox musicals, i.e. WE WILL ROCK YOU, weave together a plot with songs from a group or genre.

MAMMA MIA is a successful example of the last category. Its story revolves around the wedding day of Sophie Sheridan (played by the delightful Kathryn Lee) and Skyler (David James Grant). Sheridan's concern is who is going to give her away. There are an abundance of choices for the honor.

In the free love era of the 1970s, her mother Donna (Eli Brickey), the lead singer of the girl band Donna and the Dynamos, has three potential candidates of who could be Sophie's biological father. In the guise of her mother, Sophie extends wedding invitations to Harry Bright (Liam O'Daniel-Munger), Bill Austin (Layne Roate) and Sam Carmichael (Jesse Trieger).

The plot at first sounds like an 80s sitcom (at best) or an outtake of the Maury Povich Show (at worst). However several solid performances at Weathervane make the show believable. Lee conveys in the angst of a woman trying to find out who she is while Grant comes off as a fiancée who doesn't want the wedding turned into some sort of sideshow while still supporting his wife.

Brickey does a great turn as a mom trying to control the chaos of a wedding while simultaneously handling a reunion with her former bandmates - the party-loving Tanya (Kaitlin Descutner) and the women libber Rosie (Cheryl McFarren) - and her three former beaus. Descutner and McFarren are scene-stealing comic foils. Roate, Trieger and O'Daniel-Munger bring to life the reactions of three men realizing some potentially life altering news.

As some times is the case with jukebox musicals, some of the songs seem shoehorned into the script to supply the audience with the required fare of ABBA songs. For example, "Super Trouper" seems to be an afterthought. While it seems a little bit out of place in the show, the title track "Mamma Mia" -- with its "Laugh In" style of singers opening and closing windows on cue -- is one of the most visually fun aspects of the show.

However, when the songs fit the script, as in Bricker's powerhouse delivery of "The Winner Takes It All," it showcases the songwriting talents of Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus. When the show closes with a medley of ABBA hits, cast members pull up audience members to dance to the music. Few were able to resist.

Future audiences should be forewarned: attending MAMMA MIA can trigger 70s flashbacks and induce caterwauling of ABBA songs at the most importune moments.

The final four shows of MAMMA MIA will be 7 p.m. Dec. 28, 29 and 30 and a 2 p.m. matinee on Dec. 28 at the Weathervane Playhouse (100 Price Road in Newark). Call 740-366-4616 for information.

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From This Author Paul Batterson

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