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Mamma Mia: 'Cats' yields to ABBA

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP   |   Nov. 1, 2001 at 10:17 AM   |   Comments

NEW YORK, Nov. 1 (UPI) -- Another musical, "Mamma Mia!," that has songs by the Swedish pop group ABBA as its score, has settled in for a long run at the Winter Garden Theater, where "Cats" purred along for 18 years lucrative years.

"Mamma Mia!" sold a phenomenal $27 million worth of tickets before opening night. That is $13 million more than the advance ticket sale for "The Producers," Broadway's current megahit that opened last April.

Word of the success of "Mamma Mia's!" productions in London, Toronto and Melbourne, Australia, which are still running, and its North American tour prior to the $10 million New York production, is credited for the theater-going public's enthusiasm for a show rooted in the disco culture of the 1970s.

ABBA was active as a singing foursome from 1973 to 1982, with nearly 100 hit singles and albums selling 350 million recordings. The group was made up of Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, who wrote the songs in English, and their then-wives, Agnetha Faltskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad, and the ABBA name was taken from the initials of their first names.

Only Ulvaeus was involved in producing the musical, which includes 22 catchy ABBA songs, notably "Dancing Queen," "The Winner Takes It All," "Super Trouper," "The Name of the Game," "Money, Money, Money," "Take a Chance on Me," and "I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do." Many of these melodies and words are the kind that live in the subconscious of a generation and are still sung in the shower.

The idea of stringing these songs together in the context of a dramatic plot, with only a few cunning changes in the lyrics, originated with Judy Craymer, executive producer of the London production, about 10 years ago. Craymer had been producer of the London production of "Chess," a musical by Ulvaeus and Andersson with a book by Time Rice, that later flopped on Broadway.

After "Chess," Ulvaeus and Andersson were hesitant about working on another musical, but eventually Craymer persuaded Catherine Johnson, a leading British playwright, to write a book for a musical that got their approval. It is based on the 1968 movie, "Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell," starring Gina Lollobrigida as an Italian mother unsure of the identity of her daughter's father.

"I call it the musical we never knew we'd written," said Ulvaeus in an interview. "The songs fit so well, as if they'd actually been written for the show. And that's what we wanted."

"Mamma Mia!" is not set in Italy, but in Greece where an free-spirited American expatriate, Donna Sheridan (Louise Pitre), runs a popular tourist taverna and is preparing for the wedding of her daughter Sophie (Tina Maddigan) to a guy named Sky (Mark Price). Sophie wants to be given away by her father, but her mother -- who seems to revel in single parenthood -- has never even spoken his name.

By reading her mother's diary, Sophie learns that her father could be any one of three visitors to the island 20 years before. They are Harry, Bill and Sam. Sophie invites them to her wedding, and they arrive eager to renew their liaisons with her fascinating mother, never suspecting that they are belated candidates for fatherhood.

The denouement is never in doubt. Let's just say it's a happy wedding day for not one but two couples, putting the "I Do" song to good use.

Pitre, a French-Canadian actress who polished her Donna on the show's North American tour, is a delight in her Broadway debut as the silver-haired graduate of a 1960s singing girl group called Donna and the Dynamites. As a singer, she is a belter, and as an actress, she is dynamic though perhaps a little too severe at times, especially with Harry, Bill and Sam who, after all, just want to make nice.

Donna has invited the other members of her old rock trio -- Rosie (Judy Kaye) and Tanya (Karen Mason) -- to the wedding, and they add immeasurably to the fun. Rosie, now a cookbook author, is still looking for a husband (she sings "Take a Chance on Me" adorably), and Tanya, who has had three millionaire husbands, is still playing the vamp with deliciously campy flair.

Maddigan, also making her Broadway debut, is the perfect ingénue, dewily earnest and vocally fresh. She makes her dream of having a father believable and her prospects -- Harry (Dean Nolen), Bill (Ken Marks) and Sam (David W. Keeley) offer her a variety of personalities from which to choose. Nolen and Marks create real characters, but Keeley, who is too young for his role, is stolid by contrast.

Phyllida Lloyd, a British director of theater, opera and films, moves her large forces including an ensemble of 16 about the stage expertly and Martin Koch directs the nine-piece band's rendition of the booming, bouncy score so energetically that he has some audience members dancing in the aisles in a full-cast encore after the final curtain.

It's a visually beautiful show with a whitewashed taverna moved about on a turntable against a Aegean blue sky, artfully designed by Mark Thompson whose imaginative costumes range from Greek peasant women in their ubiquitous mourning black to a band of male divers in day-glow scuba gear. Howard Harrison's gorgeous lighting enhances the production immeasurably, especially the final scene with a descending moon.

The show's choreography is not one of its production strengths. Anthony Van Laast has been given plenty of jivey dance numbers to work with, but he has provided footwork as simplistic as the chain step and movements so exaggerated and frenetic that they lack pattern and charm. Fortunately, the shows many strengths as an endearing spoof of the pop jazz era make up for this one weakness.

© 2001 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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