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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Yes, Mamma Mia! is kitsch, but irresistibly so since its feather-weight all's well that ends well story keeps bursting into songs by the disco era's Swedish super group, ABBA. As a good sob story brings out the tissues, so this bouncy kitschical sets shoulders swaying and arms waving joyously (that includes all ages and the most , buttoned-down types).
Those ABBA hits, twenty-two in all, are the foundation for this phenomenally successful musical that has settled in at the Winter Garden after already wowing audiences abroad and in other cities. Catherine Johnson has proved herself a master at custom-tailoring a story to transform a golden oldies concert into a valid musical. She has fashioned a book (with a little helping from the 1969 movie Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell) soaked in a bright and cheery atmosphere and with enough characters and incidents to neatly and naturally accommodate the songs as production numbers.
The plot can be summed up to fit into a seashell from the mythical Greek island where it spins out: Donna Sheridan (Louise Pitre) is a forty-something single mother and owner of a small island hotel. Her twenty-year-old daughter Sophie (Tina Maddigan), about to marry a hunky guy with the color-appropriate name of Sky (Joe Machota), yearns for her unknown dad to walk her down the aisle. Mom's diary leads to three potential dads (Dean Nolen-Harry Bright, Ken Marks-Bill Austin, David W. Keeley-Sean Carmichael). One almost expects a number called "Dad, Dad, Dad, I Want to Know My Dad" to go with such favorites as " Honey, Honey", "I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do" and "Money, Money, Money". At any rate, Sophie is convinced she'll recognize her true father and so invites all three men to the wedding (telling neither mom or fiance). This serves as the basis for exploring some genuine relationship themes and also puts enough people, of various ages on stage to create the possible setups for the songs. In addition to Donna, Sophie, Sky and the three maybe dads, there are the young couple's pals, the hotel employees, and two other invited guests -- Donna's sidekicks from her wild and wooly days as the leader of the band, Donna and the Dynamos -- the much-married Tanya (Karen Mason) and roly-poly cookbook writer Rosie (Judy Kaye).
As the wedding guests arrive and Sophie meets the three could-be dads, a familiar song is never long in coming, always accompanied by knowing smiles of recognition from ABBA acolytes. That's not to say that if you aren't a dedicated groupie, you won't get a charge out of the well orchestrated music. ABBA songs didn't climb the top of the easy listening charts for nothing.
One of the show's most winning aspects is that it doesn't go overboard on the sets you associate with $100 tickets. There's just a touch of smoke and the design is basically a moveable unit set. The songs' metamorphoses into production numbers are often achieved with modest touches -- for example, Louise Pitre's show-stopping rendition of the title song, which is used to introduce her rueful romantic memories, is accompanied by a chorus of the island's natives peeking over a wall.
Pitre, with her striking silver hair is a true pop diva. Her singing is better than her acting. However, she is quite fine in the touching scene where she helps her daughter into her wedding gown. That scene conveys the mother-daughter relationship at its most substantive. Tina Maddigan, who like Pitre, is a holdover of the Toronto production, is an endearing Sophie.
The song that comes off as the most truly musical theater number is "Take a Chance On Me" in which Judy Kaye amusingly makes a stab at nailing down a mate. Kaye is musical comedy dynamite. Karen Mason is perfectly cast as her tall, thin and luckier with men counterpart, Tanya.
Dean Nolen's Bill Bright is the most memorable of Donna's former lovers though all are competent. Joe Machota is fine as Sky, with abs that should appeal especially to the youngest females in the audience.
The choreography is highly energetic, the lighting is superb and the costumes fun, with the best reserved for the big dessert -- an encore that's really a mini ABBA concert tagged to the show, with the lead players disappearing just long enough to come back in eye-popping, deliciously tacky silver lame costumes to raise the applause to the highest decibel level. Perhaps the show's managers will some time allow the ecstatic, arm waving human yo-yos to turn in their ticket stubs for a five or ten dollar standing room admission to the encore. But then -- mamma, mia -- they might have a stampede.
Mamma Mia!: The Cast Recording