Pop Goes the Culture 

Mamma Mia! and Smokey Joe's Café make audiences wanna dance.

The men of Mamma Mia! belt out the '70s hits.
  • The men of Mamma Mia! belt out the '70s hits.
Audiences love to relive the past, especially when it involves reconnecting with the music of their youth. In a happy coincidence, two shows woven from old pop standards are giving scores of Clevelanders the chance to do just that.

Mamma Mia!, a mega-hit musical concocted from the works of the '70s Swedish rock group ABBA, has a hypnotic effect on people wherever it plays. On a much more intimate scale is Beck Center's Smokey Joe's Café, which celebrates the amazingly eclectic career of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.

The touring production of Mamma Mia! has virtually sold out the State Theatre. Walking up the aisle, you can hear aficionados comparing the nuances of this version to productions in London, New York, and Toronto. The faithful include everyone from children to transfixed middle-agers; they all yearn and sway to the slick, exuberant blend of paperback-romance novel and disco euphoria. Never mind that they're getting little in the way of substance.

The show, which originated in London, is an ingenious example of musical and theatrical recycling for ultimate profitability. Favorite ABBA songs were shrewdly collected, then a story was built around them. The tale takes its inspiration from a number of sources, especially the 1968 film comedy Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell, starring Gina Lollobrigida, Peter Lawford, and Phil Silvers, which concerns a daughter unashamedly sifting through her mother's past to find her real father.

In this variation, the plot centers on a hotel run by the eponymous Mamma on a picture-postcard Greek island, complete with scantily clad tourists and menopausal women looking for love. The curiously Italian title can be attributed to one of the ABBA songs, as well as the theme of maternal fixation. During the course of the show, liberal mother and conservative daughter reverse roles.

Aside from the aphrodisiac appeal of the songs, the show fulfills a female fantasy provided in abundance in soap operas and chick flicks: Lost loves will return, no matter how long it takes. In this sun-drenched vacation brochure, there's a significant other lurking behind every fig leaf.

The show's staggering success is due in great part to the way book writer Catherine Johnson has created a universe of self-help pop psychology, sentimental rituals (weddings, reunions), and hunky male dancers. Here, it makes perfect sense for the papier-mâché characters to express the emotions of a life crisis by suddenly breaking into a banal diatribe peppered by an invisible vocal backup group.

When the material is so lacking in nourishment, it's imperative that the packaging be clever, sexy, and colorful. If anything, the production is a well-oiled entertainment machine, in the manner of Las Vegas meets MTV. Phyllida Lloyd's direction and Anthony Van Laast's choreography supply the caffeinated buzz the show needs.

The cast is always in motion -- undulating, wiggling, and revealing supple bodies. Everyone seems to be vocally endowed, but it's impossible to tell whether this is the result of nature or a state-of-the-art sound system. In the title role, Monique Lund is as earthy and inviting as the island paradise she inhabits.

Fifty years from now, musical-theater archaeologists will be scratching their heads to figure out why audiences devoured Mamma Mia! with a hunger bordering on mania. Anyone who sees the show knows the answer: It's a multimillion-dollar Oreo cookie.

If the pleasure-satiated ABBA is the ideal coupling of '70s cocaine hedonism and a disco beat, then Leiber and Stoller encapsulate an earlier mating of black rhythm & blues and the sexual teenage rebellion of Elvis Presley and James Dean. Smokey Joe's Café, presented here in an uncommonly magnetic production, is a far more sincere tribute and effective piece of theater.

The revue dispenses with the excuse of a trite story. Instead, it expresses the very essence of its music through archetypes: A sexy dame straddles a feather boa; a hep cat is so enraptured by a zoot suit that the clothing starts to gyrate on its own; a white-bread male, liberated by the sight of a shimmying femme fatale, loses all composure and breaks into a Saint Vitus' dance.

The production, exquisitely paced by director-choreographer Martin Cespedes, periodically blazes into the stratosphere like a spectacular fireworks display. The nine-member cast is a splendid mix of interracial pop performers, who vividly convey the cultural richness in the Leiber and Stoller songs. Craig Recko has a smoldering sexuality that propels the jailhouse-rock Elvis numbers. Trinidad Rosado combines Eartha Kitt's eroticism with Chita Rivera's feline allure, especially strutting her stuff in "Don Juan."

In a real theater city, this felicitous surprise would be transferred downtown for an open-ended run. It would be the perfect tonic for an overdose of fluff.

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More by Keith A. Joseph


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