- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 16, 2004

What a difference a cast makes. Two years ago, “Mamma Mia!” played the National Theatre and what a shrill, derivative affair it was.

The audience sang and clapped along as if it were Beatlemania all over again, but this critic sat glumly through this hit parade of ABBA songs feeling very much the wallflower at the orgy.

This time around, “Mamma Mia!, on stage at Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre, is frisky and infectious — due mainly to some key casting changes that lend insight into why this marshmallow fluff of a musical is such a cultural phenomenon.

With two separate tours in the United States alone, “Mamma Mia!” has more productions playing simultaneously around the world than any other musical. Scary, but true.

“Mamma Mia!” is the theater equivalent of comfort food, ‘70s-style. All that’s missing is the avocado green and harvest gold kitchenware. It combines 22 golden oldies from the Swedish pop group ABBA with a love story set on a sunny Greek island.

Add to it youthful cast members who look like the poster girls and boys for six-pack abs and spray-on tans — and featured performers who prove that over-40 isn’t fatal — and you have all the makings for a musical that’s confection perfection.

The day-glo visual pow of “Mamma Mia,” coupled with the exuberant performances, are ingratiating all by themselves. Why the show has to be so shriekingly, painfully loud is mystifying. The sound mix, heavy on the electronic keyboards and synthesized noodling, was so earsplitting on opening night that it’s a miracle there is a pane of glass left in all of downtown Baltimore.

This over-amped, over-produced sound is annoying in itself, but it also either drowns out the performers or forces them to sing at such a competitive level that their vocal chords must be beef jerky by now.

The musical is basically a chick flick in the footlights, the plot revolving around the idealistic 20-year-old Sophie (Sara Kramer), about to be married to good-natured hunk Sky (Jared Zeus). Sophie is the product of a single mother, Donna (Lauren Mufson), who proudly did it on her own, raising a daughter and running a Greek taverna.

As a wedding present to herself, Sophie pilfers her mother’s secret diary, detailing all the happy-faced hedonism of the ‘70s, hoping to find out who her father is. The diary yields three candidates, and Sophie invites them to her wedding. Who’s her daddy — the Crocodile Hunter-clone Bill (Milo Shandel), the suave Englishman Harry (Michael Grayman) or the serious architect Sam (Tony Clements), the one Donna admits was the love of her life? It takes two acts and a slew of bubblegum pop to solve the dilemma, each plot twist punctuated by such ABBA hits as “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” “Dancing Queen,” “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!,” and “The Winner Takes It All”.

Among the wedding guests are Donna’s best friends Rosie (E. Faye Butler) and Tanya (Lori Haley Fox), from their disco-queen days as the singing trio Donna and the Dynamos. Miss Butler, a Washington favorite for her performances in “Dinah Was” and “Ain’t Misbehavin’” in particular adds abundant sass and feistiness as the middle-aged chum. Her enthusiasm is catching, executing cartwheels and Eartha Kitt-like growls playing Rosie as a woman who may be menopausal, but clearly not finished with life.

Miss Mufson exudes a similar well-seasoned appeal as Donna. With her husky rock n’ roll voice and gritty charm, Miss Mufson’s Donna is someone whose triumphs are hard-won, but have not completely hardened her.

The would-be daddies are also strong, especially Mr. Clements as the sensitive, rueful Sam and Mr. Shandel as the outdoorsy Bill, who shares a rip-roaringly sexy duet with Miss Butler in “Take A Chance on Me.” With a relentlessly chipper liveliness and three extended encores, “Mamma Mia!” piles on the mindless fun until you’re ready to cry “uncle.”

***

WHAT: “Mamma Mia!” music and lyrics by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus

WHERE: Hippodrome Theatre, 12 North Eutaw St., Baltimore

WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m.Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Through May 30.

TICKETS: $30 to $75

PHONE: 800/551-7328

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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