Los Angeles Theater Review: MAMMA MIA! (Pantages Theatre in Hollywood)

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by Samuel Garza Bernstein on March 28, 2012

in Theater-Los Angeles,Tours

MAMMA MIA: TEN YEARS OF DIZZY, FIZZY DELIGHT

The most essential elements of the Mama Mia! National tour, now in its tenth year, and visiting Los Angeles once again at the Pantages for the next two weeks, are people you have likely never heard of nor will ever see in person. It is production stage manager B.J. Forman, stage manager Tina R. Perrucci, resident director Marta Banta, and music director Bill Congdon who are collectively responsible for how fresh, focused, energetic, and alive this production remains.

Long runs are difficult. Long tours are impossible. Cities and theaters blur together, the demands of the material never really change, and sometimes audiences are rather forgiving—looking at the outings as less of a new experience and more of a rendezvous with an old friend. Casts and crews can start to phone it in, walking through shows without much experiencing or giving much visceral excitement. (Once, during the long run of Les Miserables on Broadway, the company became so bored—and boring—that the producers came in and fired the entire cast, brought the director back, and started over.)

The discipline the Mama Mia! team applies to this touring production is extraordinary. The staging, musical numbers, and pacing are completely up to the standards of this evergreen musical theater stalwart—a show that, along with Jersey Boys, is among the best of the so-called jukebox musicals. There is wit and intelligence throughout. The show is unashamedly silly, but it is never dumb. The story is simple: A young woman on a Greek island (Sophie) is about to be married, but doesn’t know the identity of her biological father. From snooping through her mother’s diary, she learns there are three possible contenders. She secretly invites all three to her wedding hoping for a happy revelation. Abba songs ensue. Platform shoes and sequins take center stage. The audience dances in delight. And everyone goes home happy.

The genius of the show’s construction is in creating a narrative showcase that features characters of the same age as the people who likely most fondly remember Abba: Young Baby Boomers and Older Gen-Xers. The young woman about to be married isn’t the lead—her fortyish mother Donna is, along with her two old friends Tanya and Rosie. Even the three fortyish father possibilities, Harry, Sam, and Bill, outrank the bride and groom, and each is given his own moment in the sun.

 

The trio of women is a blast. Kaye Tuckerman brings high spirits, charm, elegance, and a big voice to Donna. She looks fabulous in the costumes, and is assured and self-possessed—I doubt she wonders whether anyone in the audience is comparing her unfavorably to Meryl Streep from the film version. I also doubt anyone is. Alison Ewing puts a pointed, precise spin on the role of the self-mocking, MILF-ish, often-married Tanya. She has style for days, and comic timing that never fails. Mary Callanan is gifted with the kind of physical grace that can sometimes be surprising when it is found in people who have larger bodies. With small moments, small gestures, and small observations, she gets some of the biggest laughs of the night. Her studied pauses at the start of “Take a Chance on Me” are mini-miracles.

The three women are lithe and unafraid of putting themselves headlong into physical action—whether hitting the floor en masse to avoid being seen from outside their windows, or reviving their old singing group, Donna and the Dynamos—which is the plot point that helps shoehorn many of the Abba hits into the show. They have true chemistry and true humor.

Paul Deboy, Christian Whelan, and John-Michael Zuerlein play Donna’s past lovers, any one of whom could be Sophie’s father—they’re as clueless as their potential daughter, Sophie. Zuerlein has a disheveled appeal, and he gives as good as he gets when paired with Mary Callanan—though he would do well to settle on a Scottish, Irish, or Welsh accent, rather than the mixture of all three he’s got going. Deboy makes his character’s memory of rocking out with head-banging abandon into a recurring bit that is sweetly embarrassing. Though it is may be impossible to alter anything as set-in-stone as the key of a song for such a long-running production, Whelan struggles with keys that are higher than seem comfortable for him.

The chorus is adorable. The men have a few numbers done in swimwear that are as wonderfully goofy as they are tightly choreographed and constructed. As the bride and groom, Chloe Tucker and Happy Mahaney hit every beat that is asked of them, but when their wedding bell blues take over at the top of the second act, the action lulls—it isn’t their fault that we’re far more interested in seeing the grown-ups rock out again. When people in their 20s make mistakes it doesn’t matter so much. They can make other choices. The future is limitless. When people in their 40s screw things up, it’s harder to get back in the game. Mamma Mia! makes you think that anything is possible—if you can still dance, if you can still jive, and if you can still abandon yourself to having the time of your life. (Disclaimer: When I phone my husband, “Dancing Queen” is the ringtone he hears.)

Photos by Joan Marcus

Mamma Mia!

The Pantages Theatre in Hollywood (Los Angeles Theater)
through April 8
for tickets, visit www.broadwayla.org

 

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