Saturday, July 03, 2004

Mama Mia (Playhouse Square Center)

'MAMA MIA' leaves 'em dancing and clapping in return visit

Saw ‘MAMMA MIA’ last time it was in Cleveland or in New York or Toronto and think you don’t want to see it again, because you don’t want to wipe out that great experience? Forget it! The touring production of ‘MAMMA MIA,’ which hit the State Theatre for a 2-week limited engagement, is every bit as good as any production you’ve seen before.

Haven’t seen the show? Well, you’d better get your dancing feet down to Playhouse Square because when this show hits the amateur circuit it isn’t going to be nearly as good. It’s just too difficult a show for lesser talents to undertake. The casting requires three middle-aged women who can sing, dance, act and do ‘60s girl group moves, and 3 dancing, singing and acting middle-aged men and a strong male dance chorus. ‘Taint easy to find that in community theatres.

If you’ve been living under a rock somewhere and don’t know what the ‘MAMMA MIA” mania is about you need a modern history music lesson. Here it is:

The place: Brighton, an English coastal town. The date: Saturday, April 6, 1974.

The event: The Eurovision Song Contest. The results: A Swedish group named ABBA was declared the winner.

ABBA, named after the first initial of the group’s member Agnetha Faltskog, Benny Andersson, Bjorn Ulvaeus and Anni-Frid Lyndstad, has sold over 350 million records worldwide. Songs such as “Dancing Queen,” “Take A Chance On Me,” and “The Winner Takes It All” have become number one on top-ten lists.

Then, ABBA entered a new phase...the professional musical theatre. Playwright Catherine Johnson created a play consisting of three love stories: a young girl about to be married, her mother who has to confront her past, and an audience about to jump out of their seats with joy. The ideas came from the lyrics of ABBA’s songs. The musical incorporates 20 of ABBA’s best known songs including “SOS,” “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” “The Name of the Game,” “Money, Money, Money,” “Gimme Gimme Gimme,” and, of course, “Mamma Mia.”

This is not the first major hit to follow the “songs first, story line later” format. Lyricist Frank Loeser wrote the music for ‘GUYS AND DOLLS’ and then a dozen or more books writers attempted to put a story around it until Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows finally succeeded.

On April 6, 1999 MAMA MIA! opened at the Prince Edward Theatre in London. At the curtain call the audience rose and began singing and dancing in the aisles. The same thing happens nightly, even in staid Cleveland, Ohio.

The touring cast is wonderful. Lauren Mufson plays the lead role of Donna with talent, vitality and a powerful voice. Her side-kicks are hysterically and professionally portrayed by Lori Haley Fox and E. Faye Butler. The men in Donna’s life are all strongly portrayed by Michel Butler Murray, Bill Austin and Sam Carmichael, who has a wonderful singing voice. Though Sara Kramer, as Donna’s daughter has a pretty voice, it is thin in the higher registers and fades at times. Jared Zeus is adequate as her boyfriend. Gerard Salvador, as one of the islanders lights up the stage with his fantastic dancing.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: If they’d let me come to all 16 performances of the present Cleveland run of ‘MAMA MIA’ I’d be there singing and dancing and clapping in the aisles during the curtain call! As the show says, “THANK YOU FOR THE MUSIC.”