Review: 'Mamma Mia!' at Playhouse Square Will Have You Dancing In Your Seat

Think seeing the movie was enough? This production will prove you wrong

Let's face it, for some people the music of the Swedish pop supergroup ABBA is a drug and—similar to the SNL skit about cowbell—there is no cure except for more massive doses of ABBA. Indeed, fans of ABBA tend to gush because their songs bristle with driving percussion and soaring melodies, merging to create a cacophony of joy that sends you into a spiral of happiness which...oh, sorry about that.

Yeah, I kinda like ABBA. And if you do too, you should get on the stick and try to see the current version of Mamma Mia! that is here for a brief visit at Playhouse Square. MM is a jukebox musical based on more than 20 songs written by ABBA composers and lyricists Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus—the two "Bs" in ABBA (the "As" are singers Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad).

But let's make one thing perfectly clear. Don't think if you've seen the movie Mamma Mia! you've seen enough. This lively, sleek production directed by Phyllida Lloyd and choreographed by Anthony Van Last is a smooth, fast-paced and engineered to get you dancing in your seat.

While the story crafted by book writer Catherine Johnson is more than a bit contrived, it's only there to provide a structure on which to hang the songs. And it does that by placing all the action on a sunny Greek island where a young woman Sophie (Alisa Melendez) is about to marry her fiancé Sky (Grant Reynolds) She wants her father to accompany her down the aisle, but she doesn't know who he is since her mom Donna (Christine Sherrill) got busy with a few guys (okay, more than a few) back in the day.

While stealing a look at her mom's diary, she narrows it down to three dudes whom she invites to the wedding so she can suss out who's her real daddy. Of course Sam, Bill and Harry all show up (unbeknownst to Donna), each is handsome, and the romantic intrigue, such as it is, begins to simmer. This stew is accented by the presence of Tanya and Rosie, Donna's gal pals from the days when they comprised the girl group "Donna and the Dynamos."

Much of the humor comes from the fact that the Dynamos are older now and their performance dynamite has gotten damp due to gimpy joints and fading endurance. But they've brought their old costumes (which they fit into...ha!) and are ready to revisit the glories of their past.

All of that clears the deck for the songs, and the cast delivers them with vocal dexterity and some surprisingly touching moments. As the somewhat interchangeable former boyfriends, Rob Marnell, Jim Newman and Victor Wallace have excellent voices and handle their guy chores with panache. And Jalynn Steele as Tanya adds plenty of sass in "Honey, Honey" while Carly Sakolove as the comical Rosie gets her share of laughs on her way to her own romantic connection.

Many of ABBA's killer songs are here, including "S.O.S.," "Super Trouper," "The Name of the Game," and "Knowing Me, Knowing You." But the showstopper is "The Winner Takes It All," and it's nailed by Sherrill, who is fine throughout but manages to turn the rather lame lyrics ("So the winner takes it all/And the loser has to fall") into a soaring emotional high point.

For those who don't know ABBA and don't care to sample their wares, go buy a cowbell and knock yourselves out. For the rest of us, this ABBA-stuffed Mamma Mia! feels like a belated holiday gift.

Mamma Mia!
Through February 4 at Playhouse Square, Connor Palace Theater, 1615 Euclid Ave.,, 216-241-6000.

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Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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