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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Mamma Mia!

So often when trying to create space for marginalized voices, our stories can feel heavy and forlorn. And sometimes the best thing we can do is put on our sequin jump suit and turn on that disco ball so that we can make it through another day, week, or year.
— East West Players Producing Artistic Director Snehal Dasai, director of Mamma Mia!
Elvira Barjau, Joan Almedilla, and Anthea Neri(Photo by Steven Lam)
There might have been a time during East West Players' 53 years when the programming of a crowd-pleasing puffball like the musical Mamma Mia! would have sparked justifiable rancor. You've got the nation's "longest running professional theater of color" with a mission for telling Asian-American stories and/ or giving Asian artists access to works they might not otherwise get to perform. And they're giving their audiences "Waterloo —knowing my fate is to be with you."?!

But EWP Producing Artistic Director Snehal Desai, who both programmed and directs the company's current production of Mamma Mia!, has proven himself a savvy businessman as well a talented artist. Patrons who prefer weightier stuff may shy away from the David Henry Hwang Theatre where the Catherine Johnson written/ABBA-scored musical closes out the season. And if they stay away, they'll miss out on one heck of a party.

They will not miss out on the unearthing of new creative soil. Nearly 20 years since it ushered in a new era of jukebox musicals, Mamma Mia! remains exactly what it has always been: an excuse to play ABBA songs goofily masquerading as storytelling.

For anyone who has remained Mamma Mia! ignorant for the last two decades, young Sophie Sheridan has read her mother's diary and determined that three men might be her father. On the eve of her wedding, Sophie invites all three dad candidates to the inn run by her mother on a Greek isle in the hopes of finding someone to walk her down the aisle. The characters are flatly written; the dialogue is beyond clunky. But 23 quite-well-known ABBA songs are woven into the narrative, and everybody gets in on the fun.

Now, spandex jump suits, "SOS," and "Dancing Queen" shouldn't in any way chafe against a multi-cultural overlay and Desai's program introduction cites that the musical is frequently diversely cast. "But rarely," he writes, "with all of the principal roles, and in our case, the entire company being artists of color." Be this as it may, the production does not feel like it's planting a heavy flag for diversity.

Yes, Desai and his design team gives the work dollops of Asian flavor, from the lanterns that festoon Anna Robinson's set to the fans incorporated into "Gimme Gimme Gimme." Tanya, one of Donna's best friends and former bandmates, makes a reference to being Filipino, You've even got an appearance by an anthropomorphized Hello Kitty in a dream sequence

So it goes. Single mom, former rock star and innkeeper Donna Sheridan is a juicy role (just ask Meryl Streep!) and in taking it on EWP regular Joan Almedilla embraces her inner Super Trouper with gusto. Donna gets many of the best songs (ballads and ensemble pacers), and Almedilla can tap into the giddiness of a "Money Money Money" or the sorrow of "The Winner Takes It All" with equal ease. The actress feels like she's on less stable ground when the music stops and she has to play out a scene, and she's not alone in this regard. Alan Ariano as one of Donna's former flames and Max Torrez as Sophie's fiancee, Skye also seem to chafe against some of the dialogue. In defense of all three, these are some lame words that the company members have to wrestle into submission.

The hambone-y characters have an easier time of things. Anthea Neri and Elvira Barjau are clearly having a high old time as Tonya and Rosie, Donna's backup singers, best friends from her youth, and now man-hungry wedding guests. Leading the beefcake line in "Does Your Mother Know," Nerri's Tonya is appropriately in cougar heaven. She's also the only company member who doesn't perform the number shirtless.

Music Director Marc Macalintal guides a rocking, unseen house band and choreographer Preston Mui's sprightly choreography is go-go-era appropriate. Especially delightful is Mui's work with the boys clad in wetsuits, floaties and flippers clomp, clomp, clopping their way down the beach for "Lay All Your Love on Me." What that song has to do with anything in the context of this story is anybody's guess, but, honestly, why overtax the little gray cells?

The score is richly-flavored bubble gum; the costumes by Stephanie A Nguyen are a delicious disco flashback; and anybody who knows the words can sing along. "Here we go again" indeed as the title lyric goes, and more serious-minded East West patrons can hope for substance when the next season arrives.

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Mamma Mia!
Book by Catherine Johnson
Music and Lyrics by Born Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson
Directed by Snehal Desai
Cast: Joan Almedilla, AJ Rafael, Edelyn Okano, Elvira Barjau, Kevin Trinio Perdido, Dekontee Tucrkile, Anthea Neri, Nicole Santiago, Steven Agdeppa, Grace Yoo, Jules Aurora, Andrew Ge, Max Torrez, Ala Tiata, Alan Ariano, Danny Bernardo, Michael Palma
Set Design: Anna Robinson
Lighting Design: Karyn Lawrence
Sound Design: Christian Lee
Costume Design: Stephanie A. Nguyen
Music Director: Marc Macalintal
Stage Manager: Brandon Hong Cheng
Choreography: Preston Mui
Plays through June 9, 2019 at the David Henry Hwang Theatre, 120 Judge John Aiso Street, Los Angeles.
Running time: Two hours, 30 minutes with one intermission
Reviewed by Evan Henerson

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