Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Mamma Mia!, PlayhouseSquare

(The Crayola-garbed Mamma Mia! cast in mid-frolic)

There are some shows that defy critical comment, because the sheer energy of the production and the effusive love coming back from the audience overwhelms rational thought. And sometimes, that’s not all bad.

Mamma Mia! now playing the Palace Theatre at PlayhouseSquare is just such a phenomenon, a musical stitched together around the songs (by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus) ,of the sizzling 1970’s group ABBA. Viewed from one perspective, Mamma Mia! is a cheese-fest of monumental proportions, featuring pop songs and an unbelievable book by Catherine Johnson in a candy-colored setting. Then again, the songs have beats that are as immediately infectious as H1N1, and since the show doesn’t take itself seriously it is virtually immunized against carping words.

20-year-old Sophie is getting married on the idyllic Greek isle where she lives with her ex-rocker mom Donna, who owns a small taverna. But Sophie doesn’t know who her dad is, so she invites three dudes Danna apparently bonked back in the day (thanks to a fast jaunt through mom’s old diary) and they all show up.And the aging boys interact with Donna's old gal pals, Rosie and Tanya, who were once her back-up singers.

This sit-com storyline really only exists to allow the assembled to sing almost a couple dozen ABBA songs such as “Dancing Queen,” “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” and “Take a Chance on Me.” Some of the tunes are integrated well into the proceedings, while others are a forced fit. But most are genuine toe-tappers, accompanied by the low rumbling of audience members who are singing along without missing a beat.

On this opening night, stand-in Rachel Tyler sang the central role of Donna with power, ably supported by Kittra Wynn Coomer as stocky Rosie and stand-in Katy Blake as sexy Tanya. As Sophie, Liana Hunt has a rather fragile and wispy singing voice, even for an ingénue. And her main squeeze ,Sky, was played by yet another stand-in, Bradley Whitfield, a young fellow with a better physique than stage charisma.

But as was said, none of this really matters once the songs start working their insistent magic. And by the time the post-curtain call mini-concert of reprised songs is done, you’ll probably be standing and clapping along with all the other Mamma Mia! acolytes. Don’t fight it; it’s bigger than you.

Mamma Mia!
Through November 15 at the
Palace Theatre, PlayhouseSquare,
1615 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000

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