'Mamma Mia' offers super-sized entertainment

The touring musical features two dozen ABBA songs at the Hippodrome through Nov. 29

November 25, 2009|By Tim Smith | tim.smith@baltsun.com | Baltimore Sun reporter

Only cool-tempered Swedes could take a hot-blooded Italian expression like "Mamma mia" (imagine Anna Magnani saying it) and use it without any syllabic stress in a light, snappy song, as if the value of the two words derived from their alliterative appeal alone. But Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson knew just what they were doing in generating that song, and a whole bunch like it, for their famed group ABBA.

The way those guys could match any string of words to magnetic melodic hooks proved magical in the 1970s and early '80s, leading to a pop music phenomenon of global proportions. ABBA may have disbanded 27 years ago, but you'd never know it.

" Mamma Mia!," the stage show spawned from nearly two dozen ABBA tunes, opened in 1999 in London, where it is still playing. It has been on Broadway since 2001. And, as the touring production that breezed this week into the Hippodrome Theatre makes plain, there's plenty of mileage left.

Like a fast food empire, "Mamma Mia!" keeps on giving people what they want. Over 40 million served! Over $2 billion earned! (The title could just as well have been "Money, Money, Money.") The sugar content is high, the nutritional value low, but the entertainment value super-sized.

In some ways, the show is a throwback to musicals of the 1920s and '30s, when plots took second (or even third) seat to everything else, when hummable riffs mattered most. Audiences flocking to "Mamma Mia!" aren't craving a Sondheim-ian experience, but an ABBA feast. They get that, in spades, including a sing-along, dance-along encore session that has become a sacred part of the experience.

The wonder of this show is that, thanks to Catherine Johnson's often witty book, it actually has a serviceable story line - a young woman about to marry on a Greek isle tries to settle some identity issues first - threaded around the familiar songs. And the impressive thing about the much-traveled touring version is how much freshness and energy flows from the stage, as if this were all some newly discovered product. Not even a whiff of road-show staleness.

On Tuesday night, the well-oiled performance reaffirmed the staying power of Phyllida Lloyd's original direction, the cleverness of Anthony Van Laast's kinetic choreography (the snorkeling gear number is still a hoot), and the atmospheric quality of Mark Thompson's neatly functional scenic design.

As Donna, the former flower child preparing for her daughter Sophie's wedding, Michelle Dawson offered a telling, three-dimensional characterization and a voice that, for the most part, took off effectively on the tuneful flights. Liana Hunt caught the naive, knowing and passionate sides of Sophie and sang sweetly.

The roles of Donna's BFFs were filled with particular flair. Kittra Wynn Coomer, as Rosie, proved to be quite the scene-stealer, with an unfailing sense of comic timing, a no-holds-barred physicality and a strong, vibrant voice. She also filled out the flashiest costumes with great elan (in earlier years, Elton John would have paid dearly for such outfits). Rachel Tyler, adding to the Grecian sunlight with an Ivana Trump-ish pile of blond on her head and flashing long, agile legs at the drop of a major chord, had a field day as Tanya.

As the three men who face the vexing question of Sophie's paternal roots, John Hemphill (Sam), Martin Kildare (Bill) and Michael Aaron Lindner (Harry) turned in nicely detailed characterizations and handled their vocal assignments in generally persuasive form. (Lindner also dealt nimbly with a malfunctioning microphone.)

Adam Jacobs revealed the requisite personality and pecs for Sky, Sophie's intended. Particularly vibrant supporting work came from Monette McKay (Ali) and Adam Michael Kaokept (Pepper). The ensemble didn't miss a beat all evening, and Bill Congdon kept the band firmly on track.

There's not much that even this ABBA love-fest can do for some of the less-inspired songs (the treacly "Thank You for the Music," to name one). But for pure, feel-good escapism and, this weekend, for a break from Thanksgiving leftovers, "Mamma Mia!" is hard to beat.

You would have to be stone deaf not to get swept along by at least some of the tuneful exuberance. Let's face it - deep down, there's a dancing queen in just about everybody.

Info: "Mamma Mia!" will be performed at 2 and 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday at the Hippodrome, 12 N. Eutaw St. Tickets are $25 to $75. Call 410-547-7328 or go to ticketmaster.com.

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