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BWW Reviews: MAMMA MIA! Goes Again and Never Lets You Go

The Cast of MAMMA MIA! national tour
Photo by Joan Marcus

We're all much too cool to enjoy the pop stylings of ABBA - Europop? More like Eurotrash amirite? - just like we're all much too health conscious to eat at McDonald's. Yet, miraculously, 54 million people (and counting) have seen the ABBA-inspired, jukebox musical MAMMA MIA! Since its 1999 West End debut, the musical has grossed over $2 billion worldwide. It is the eighth longest-running show in Broadway history, and thanks to the skills of former ABBA members Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus - with a little lyrical help from Stig Anderson - I knew the lyrics and melody to "Dancing Queen" before ever setting eyes on the production. Chances are you did too. To add insult to injury, McDonald's grosses $6.7 billion in a bad quarter.

Before seeing the production, I knew the caliber of Catherine Johnson's book: Twenty-year-old Sophie Sheridan wants a white wedding with her high school beau, much to the chagrin of her era-of-free-love mother. Not only does Sophie want a white wedding, she wants to be walked down the aisle by her father. The hitch to this hitching is that Sophie doesn't know who her father is and her mother won't tell. So Sophie breaks all boundaries and snoops through her mother's old diary. She finds three potential paternal candidates - Sam, Bill and Harry. She invites them to her wedding without telling her mother causing all sorts of easily foreseen fracas and discord.

In viewing the production, however, it becomes clear that the primary goal of the book is to serve as a showcase for the songs. It is more concert than musical. And Catherine Johnson's book is full of one-liners as catchy as the songs she's trying to connect. Keeping this in mind, it becomes easier to overlook the paper-thin plot. Admittedly, at times, the lack of story becomes tiring. It's a concert without enough patter. But judging by the audience members dancing on one and three with plastic cups of wine in hand, the musical never becomes tiring enough to dampen. That's what the wine is for. Think of this musical as a Jolly Rancher - tart, overwhelming flavor that's slow releasing. It's great to savor, but you really, really want to just bite into it. Dental health be damned.

Execution is key with a musical like MAMMA MIA! Pacing and performances must be top-notch. This particular iteration of the musical, directed by Phyllida Lloyd, is rightly fast-paced, due in no small part to Anthony Van Laast's deceptively simple choreography. The ensemble becomes undulating deep sea divers in "Lay all your love on me" and jazz mamas in "Money, Money, Money." Even Lloyd's transitions are entertaining. For scene changes, the actors scrambling about to move the set and props appear to be scurrying embodiments of both elegance and efficiency.

The performers definitely go above and beyond the material. The cast members have been blessed with great voices and compound their blessings with beautiful singing. Chelsea Williams (Sophie Sheridan) and Georgia Kate Haege (Donna Sheridan) reprise their roles. The chemistry between Haege and Jeff Drushal (Sam) create the primary justification for the adorable, but ham-fisted, turn in "I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do."

Williams creates a sweet and likeable Sophie. This is no small feat. Williams character is a classic ungrateful daughter with manipulative tendencies. But Williams conception of the character is too broad in the early scenes of MAMMA MIA!. There was a thin old Hollywood veneer about her portrayal. Think of the feigned wide-eyed innocence of Judy Garland in THE WIZARD OF OZ.

However, Lloyd coaches broad performances. This works well with secondary and tertiary characters like Bailey Purvis' Tanya or Tony Tillman's Eddie. But when the style is applied to Williams, it verges on pandering. Predictably, audiences seem to like it. Then again, to be fair to Lloyd, these are broad characters.

Speaking of secondary and tertiary characters, the musical makes good use of them. Donna and the Dynamos, Donna's long lost girl group with close friends Tanya (Bailey Purvis) and Rosie (Sarah Smith), create magic with their performance of "Super Trouper." Purvis has a particularly good bit when her character, who has been married and divorced thrice - each time to a very wealthy man, tries and fails to inflate an air mattress. She huffs and puffs until Smith's Rosie explains that the tactic she uses in her marriages will not work here. She needs to blow.

Smith's comedic chops further shine in the saucy "Take a Chance on Me." Tony Tillman (Eddie) provides belly laughs with his patois accent, and P. Tucker Worley (Pepper) is perfect as an annoying little brother type. By the end of the musical, you'll want to sit on him until he pops like a grape. That'll show him for repeating everything you say.

In general, men play a backseat in the piece, aptly titled MAMMA MIA!. But Eric Presnall (Sky), Andrew Tebo (Harry Bright), Drushal (Sam), and Michael Colavolpe (Bill Austin) hold their own.

Behind the scenes efforts also deserve praise. Costumes by Scott Traugott are a classic sort of trashy. The metallic, glittery numbers that introduced Donna and the Dynamos are not acceptable day wear, but you'll leave wishing they were.

Along with the live music, Sound Design by Andrew Bruce & Bobby Aitken added to the concert feel of the musical. Admittedly, this is persnickety, but there was a very jarring restart to the music after intermission. And the live music, though a huge booster to the musical, was loud. Very loud. Like soccer stadium "GOAAAAAAAAL" loud. My ears are still ringing.

MAMMA MIA! is worth your time and money. All the hits are there (minus "Fernando", but you knew that). During scenes, "Mamma Mia" and "Dancing Queens" are cursory, but the encore (yes, of course, this musical has an encore) includes the cast performing full versions of both songs. The book is filled with witty one liners and jabs, and there's no sucking. Everyone can blow, including Tanya. Go see MAMMA MIA!. Bring your girlfriends along. And don't forget to get yourself a plastic cup of wine for the ride.

MAMMA MIA! runs from April 14-19 on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday evenings at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday evenings at 8:00 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2:00 p.m. at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, Sarofim Hall, 800 Bagby Street. Tickets start at $30. For more information, visit www.BroadwayAtTheHobbyCenter.com or call (800) 982-ARTS (2787).


The Cast of MAMMA MIA! national tour
Photo by Joan Marcus


The Cast of MAMMA MIA! national tour
Photo by Joan Marcus


The Cast of MAMMA MIA! national tour
Photo by Joan Marcus


The Cast of MAMMA MIA! national tour
Photo by Joan Marcus


The Cast of MAMMA MIA! national tour
Photo by Joan Marcus


The Cast of MAMMA MIA! national tour
Photo by Joan Marcus


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