Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Mamma Mia!, PlayhouseSquare

(Mamma Mia! cast in mid-fantasy)

As was recently noted on The Daily Show, NASCAR has its own branded line of romance novels. (And indeed, what could be more symbolic of most relationships than continually going around in circles while facing the ever-present danger of a nasty pile-up?)

Clearly, when it comes to romantic fantasies there should be no limitations imposed by reality. So why not a musical built around the possibility of love being reignited for a middle-aged woman with three of her paramours from decades earlier? That’s the central conceit of Mamma Mia!, the stage musical now at PlayhouseSquare that recently morphed into a movie starring Meryl Streep.

This is a jukebox, bubble gum musical for people (mostly female) who gave up Double Bubble long ago to avoid denture catastrophes. Populated with songs from the Swedish electro-disco group ABBA, written by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, the show is fiercely pleasant and may even touch your emotions, fight as you may against the cloying sweetness of it all.

Set on a soothing and idyllic Greek island awash in hues of azure and gold, taverna-owner and single mom Donna is preparing for her daughter Sophie’s wedding to a boy named, inevitably, Sky. But fatherless Sophie has thrown a wrench into the works by reading mom’s old diary, discovering three men who evidently bedded mom around the time of Sophie’s conception, and inviting them all to the wedding. Soph is sure she will recognize who is her real father once she sees him.

The book by Catherine Johnson conveniently ignores the obvious logistical difficulties of finding current addresses for these aging farts (hey, it’s a romance for chrissakes!), and the guys all show up at mom’s digs. This inspires Donna to launch into a rendition of the terminally catchy title song, as she musically wonders “Mamma Mia! can I resist you?” Well, it would be pretty easy in the real world, since Harry is pretty hefty and a teeny bit fey, Sam is balding and Bill is a still-adolescent Aussie. But apparently they look different to her.

Each of these guys fit into Donna’s dream world, and she is egged on by her two old friends, Rosie and Tanya, who comprised her back-up group when they were Donna and the Dynamos. (Oh, I didn’t mention mom was an ex-rocker? Well, get with it, this is a romantic fantasy!).

Even though the plot is as unsubstantial as baked phyllo dough, the ABBA songs are infectiously upbeat as performed by a talented touring cast. Susie McMonagle is ideal as Donna, a down-to-earth woman who just happens to know how to belt out a song. And her rueful rendition of “The Winner Takes It All” is surprisingly affecting.

Also excellent in their admittedly small-bore roles are Rose Sezniak as optimistic Sophie and Kittra Wynn Coomer as no-nonsense Rosie. Coomer’s funny and rousing duet of “Take a Chance on Me” with Martin Kildare, who plays Bill, is as close to a show-stopper as this production offers. As Sam, John Hemphill sings well but doesn’t generate as many studly vibes as he might, given his central position in this sexy charade.

Although it lacks the driving, visceral power of another recent jukebox musical that played the Square, The Jersey Boys, Mamma Mia! ultimately earns its exclamation point by delivering the songs with energy and an irrepressible joie de vivre. That makes for a fun, if not exactly all-time-memorable, evening.

Mamma Mia!
August 5 – 10
State Theatre at PlayhouseSquare
1518 Euclid Avenue

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