Mamma Mia!

Can you forgive a show that brings back platform boots and white spandex?

Apparently theatergoers in London, Toronto, Melbourne and on the road have, turning "Mamma Mia!" into a megahit musical that has audience members dancing in the aisles at the extended curtain calls. Now, it's the turn of fashion-conscious New Yorkers, who probably will be just as accommodating. Taste has nothing to do with it.

"Mamma Mia!" is a triumph of product placement, in this case, the product being nearly two dozens songs by the Swedish pop group ABBA. The musical, which opened Thursday at Broadway's Winter Garden Theatre, is a cannily constructed homage to the thump-thump beat of late 1970s disco personified by those Scandinavian songsmiths Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus.

Deep, it's not. There is no subtext. Heck, there's barely any text. The flimsy tale, concocted by Catherine Johnson, is an excuse to insert ABBA's greatest and not-so-greatest hits into a mock Harlequin Romance (with feminist overtones) set on a small Greek island.

Gutsy Donna Sheridan, played by Louise Pitre, was a free spirit years ago. A one-time pop singer and single mother. Now her daughter Sophie is getting married, and she has found the names in her mother's diary of three men who might be her dad. Sophie secretly invites all three to the wedding. Complications ensue.

It takes a full 30 minutes from a deafening overture for "Mamma Mia!" to crank up. The show finally percolates to life when Donna discovers the presence of the men who could be the father of her child. At that moment, the stage goes dark, except for a spotlight on Pitre, who bursts into a frantically funny version of the title tune. It's one of the show's few genuine laughs.

Pitre is the musical's major asset. She is a petite songstress and a game performer with a powerhouse voice. Plus she looks awfully good in a sexy black slip. Pitre is backed up by Broadway veterans Judy Kaye and Karen Mason, who portray friends from her pop-music past. All three were members of a girl group called Donna and the Dynamos.

Each lady gets a chance to shine: Pitre in her anthemlike rendition of "The Winner Takes It All"; the lanky Mason in "Does Your Mother Know" (an effectively overripe number danced with the boyish Mark Price) and Kaye in a countrified version of one of the show's more likable tunes, "Take A Chance on Me."

As Sophie, Tina Maddigan matches Pitre's vocal fireworks, and she even manages to inject a bit of personality into her character---a young woman who wants to do things her own way.

ABBA's songs are catchy and hummable, and while numbers such as "Chiquitita" and "Super Trouper" are lollipop bright, they sure don't reveal character or advance the plot (what little there is).

What "Mamma Mia!" does quite cleverly is play on the audience's nostalgia for ABBA. If you aren't a fan or haven't heard of the group, the joke will be lost. The musical numbers are listed in alphabetical order in the theater program, so theatergoers don't know when they will pop up in the show. When they do, the audience can congratulate itself for recognizing the songs and appreciating the skill with which Johnson has slipped them into the show.

There's not much suspense in guessing which guy fathered Sophie, and you don't much care. The men are surprisingly colorless right down the line--stock characters played by bland actors. Even Sophie's intended is a cipher.

Designer Mark Thompson has come up with a vibrant blue background for the wide Winter Garden stage. It looks cool and inviting. And near the end of the show, there's a lovely full moon that climbs toward the theater's vast proscenium arch. Yet Thompson's main set, a taverna that swirls and spins around the stage, looks more like an army bunker than an inn on a picturesque Greek isle.

Director Phyllida Lloyd is hard-pressed to keep the show moving, finally allowing the cast to abandon the plot altogether and just sing or dance. Choreographer Anthony Van Laast has the disco dancing down exactly right, yet when he tries for deliberate goofiness--dressing his chorus line in scuba outfits, for example--it just seems contrived.

But then "Mamma Mia!" revels primarily in its own construction. It's manufactured rather than inspired and so is much of what passes for fun in the show.


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