Mamma Mia!

Fox Theatre

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Let me state, for the record, that I am not now nor have I ever been a fan of the 1970s pop quartet ABBA. When they were cranking out hits like "Dancing Queen", I was sneering at them and listening to Elvis Costello and The Ramones.

I say this not to make you think I'm a Cool Guy (™) but rather to reassure you that when I describe Mamma Mia! the 1999 musical with a score consisting of twenty-two tunes originally sung by ABBA as a completely captivating evening of musical theatre, it's not because of any latent nostalgia for platform shoes and white Spandex. No, it's because producer Judy Craymer, director Phyllida Lloyd and playwright Catherine Johnson (all from Britian, where this show began and where the population have in inexplicable love affair for the Swedish group) have put together a fast-paced, funny, and occasionally even touching show that can send even a die-hard ABBA hater like yours truly out of the theatre with a smile on his face and a handful of those bouncy, hook-laden melodies rattling around in his brain.

It's Johnson's book that makes the show something other than a '70s nostalgia fest, of course. Mamma Mia! takes place on a Greek island where Sophie, who has been raised by her mother Donna (a former '70s "wild child", now a respectable hotel owner), is about to be married. Snooping in mom's diary, Sophie discovers that her father must be one of three of Donna's former lovers. She invites all three to her wedding on the assumption that she'll know her real dad when she sees him and complications (as they say) ensue.

Kristie Marsden starts out properly winsome and naïve as Sophie, and is believably stronger and wiser by the final scene in which a wedding actually does take place, even if it's not hers. Understudy Marlene Handrahan stepped into the role of Donna on opening night and gave a strong and impressive performance that's nicely matched by Ellen Harvey and Robin Baxter as her old girl friends Tanya and Rosie. Harvey and Baxter are accomplished comediennes and both have ample opportunities to shine in numbers like "Does Your Mother Know" (in which Tanya has a "Mrs. Robinson" interlude with one of Donna's studly young employees) and "Take a Chance On Me" (in which Rosie pursues one of Donna's ex-lovers).

Speaking of those ex-lovers, Don Noble leads the pack as a strong and sympathetic Sam, the American architect who designed Donna's hotel and the one old flame she has never quenched. Sam's fellow candidates for the title of Sperm Donor are the rough-hewn Australian travel writer Bill Austin, played with great good humor by Pearce Bunting and the conservative British banker Harry, given a winning portrayal by James Kall. They, too, all get their chances to shine and they do. So does Chris Bolan as Sky, Sophie's intended.

Even the chorus does a fair amount of shining, thanks to Anthony Van Laast's lively choreography and Mark Thompson's bright and inventive costumes, including the trademark sci-fi glitter of the ABBA drag worn by the six principals in the three-song set ("Dancing Queen", "Mamma Mia" and "Waterloo") that closes the curtain call and brings this unstintingly cheerful show to a rousing conclusion.

If I have a complaint, it's that the producers apparently thought it necessary to change Donna and her chums from Brits to Americans. I understand the logic, but it for me, at least, it makes their memories of their time as an all-girl ABBA clone band a little harder to buy. American girl-power bands in the '70s were more likely to sport safety pins than Spandex, after all. This is minor stuff, though, and probably irrelevant to anyone who hasn't seen the British original.

The important thing is that Mamma Mia! will be raising the roof at the Fox through August 25th, call 314-531-1111 for tickets and get in on the fun. And do it soon; tickets for this one will be as hot as our recent weather.

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