‘Mama Mia!’ gets audiences singing

“Marriage is an institution for people who belong in an institution.”

And so it is demonstrated in the musical “Mama Mia!,” which features the music of the ’70s pop group, ABBA, now playing at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood. In fact, everyone seems a little bit crazy in this story of a young woman who plans to marry her first love and the mother, a product of the ’60s, who can’t understand why. And the craziness, coupled with catchy songs by the Swedish pop band that swept Americans away in “ABBAmania,” like “Dancing Queen,” “Super Trouper,” “Take a Chance on Me” and the title song, “Mama Mia,” is funny.

How writer Catherine Johnson managed to shape a story from the songs of ABBA and how director Phyllida Lloyd brought it to life on stage, caused the audience on the premiere night of the show to laugh with appreciative recognition and delight every time cast members started to sing the first few notes of a song resulting from a dramatic situation.

In the opening of the musical, Sophie Sheridan, played by Chilina Kennedy, sends off notes to her three possible fathers, inviting them to her wedding. (She had found her mother’s diary dated with entries that coincide with the possible timeframe of her conception, and listed were three men her mother had affairs with during that time.) Resulting in the invitations is a flurry of surprises, recriminations, touching drama and hope. All punctuated with the tunes of ABBA.

Two original ABBA members, Benny Andersson (composer/producer) and Bjorn Ulvaeus (music and lyrics), tried their hand at a musical with Tim Rice in 1986. “Chess” was not received well on Broadway. The two then met producer Judy Cramer after she joined Rice’s production company. Johnson was then commissioned to write the book for “Mama Mia!” The team focused on what they considered the most important aspect-the story. Fortunately, the songs of ABBA had plenty of drama in them, and as a press release noted, “Not only are they frequently complete stories within themselves, but … also many of the early ABBA songs were more innocent, naïve and teenage oriented, whereas later on they became more mature and reflective.” So two generations of women became the focal point of the story, Donna, and her daughter, Sophie.

Colleen Fitzpatrick performs Donna with a strong voice and commanding presence, belting out “Money, Money, Money,” with assuredness, yet singing with tenderness “Slipping Through My Fingers,” which reflects her feelings about her daughter growing up.

Cynthia Sophiea plays sexy, redheaded Tanya and Anette Michelle Sanders plays Rosie, Donna’s two best friends. Tanya, who’s been through many husbands, laments “What’s wrong with kids these days,” when she and Rosie try to comfort Donna over her daughter’s impending marriage. (She also uttered the “institution” line.)

As Donna tells the story of the three possible fathers, and that she doesn’t know who is the real father, Rosie says of the situation, “It is very Greek.”

Eventually, in an effort to convince Donna to perform with them, like in the old days, at the bachelorette party for Sophie, they break out into “Dancing Queen,” which some audience members sang along to, word for word.

Sanders’ performance of “Take a Chance on Me” near the end of the musical when she finds she is in love with one of the possible fathers, Bill Austin, played by Craig Bennett, is comical. She chases Bill through the church, overturning chairs and finally convincing him to take that chance. It was a perfect example of how the writer, lyricists and director seamlessly and wittily incorporate a song with the situation, or vice versa. Another noteworthy performance is by Michael Devries who plays possible “father” Harry Bright.

The show ended to a standing ovation, which rewarded the audience with full renditions of at least four favorite ABBA songs, arms waving in the air, singing along.

“Mama Mia!” performs through June 12.

The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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