‘Mamma Mia!’ may be a silly premise, but the show’s irresistible

Plot is thin, but show just draws you in
From left: Brian Cali, Gil Brady, Lily Philistine and Gary Lindemann in "Mamma Mia!"
From left: Brian Cali, Gil Brady, Lily Philistine and Gary Lindemann in "Mamma Mia!"

ALBANY — During the interval at Capital Rep’s fun-filled production of the mega-hit musical “Mamma Mia!,” an enthusiastic gentleman who had spent most of the first act singing the songs along with the cast, asked me if I was enjoying the show.  “Yes, quite a lot, thanks,” I replied smiling and added, “And I don’t have to ask if you’re enjoying the show! You know all the words.”

 “Oh, yes!” he bounced back, “I love this show and I loved, loved, loved the movie. Meryl [Streep] was the bomb! Did you see it? ” Fighting the urge to say, “Of course I saw the movie. I never miss a Pierce Brosnan musical,” I smiled and politely said, “Oh yes I did, I wouldn’t have missed it.”  And despite the fact that neither Meryl nor James Bond appear in this production, you won’t want to miss it.  It’s a heck of a lot of fun.

Like most in the audience, the music of the Euro pop sensation ABBA was a big part of the soundtrack my youth.  ABBA had a string of non-stop hits including “Dancing Queen”, “Super Trouper” and “The Name of the Game,” which crackled out of AM radios in the 1970s, creating nostalgic earworms that continue to this day.  Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and Carol King was the music that came pouring out of the stereo in my bedroom and the whole neighborhood could hear when the windows were open. But the windows were slammed shut and the headphones popped on when I listened to ABBA. Owning the 45s of “Waterloo” and “SOS” was not something I would have admitted to back then — not quite sure I even want to admit to that fact now — but I knew few were able to resist the siren call of Agnetha, Anni-Frid, Benny and Bjorn.  We all succumb to ABBA.

Resistance to “Mamma Mia!” is impossible. Although it’s a show that feels conceived by a group of inebriated friends in a gay bar on karaoke night, (The same might be said of the musical “Sunset Boulevard,” but I digress), “Mamma Mia!” is a giddy, grinning poster child for manufactured camp that proves infectious. No matter how illogical and ludicrous the show becomes, how clunky the book lands and how clichéd the emotions, you succumb.

The music overwhelms you with nostalgia and you drown in the silly, vapid world of “Mamma Mia!”  Intellectually, this show is a train wreck, but it’s rather entertaining.  But each time I see this show, I catch myself smiling. A big silly smile. Am I uncomfortable at my visceral reaction?  Perhaps, because I know the show is truly ridiculous. Surprised?  No. There is no vaccine available to make you immune to this ABBA fest. 

The plot — and I use that word loosely — is rather laughable. Chock full of cheap dialogue that sounds culled from a canceled sitcom, the story takes place in a taverna on a Greek isle, as the perky and fatherless 21-year-old Sophie (an appealing Christina Carlucci) is about to open a Pandora’s Box of ancient history. Sophie has read the diary of her single mom, Donna (played by the warm and wonderful Lyn Philistine) with hopes to glean clues as to just which one of her mom’s former lovers is her father.  Is it Bill (Brian Cali), Sam (Gil Brady) or Harry (Gary Lindemann)?

To find out, she invites them all to her upcoming wedding to Sky (Patton Chandler). But doesn’t tell mom! Seeing this troika from her past sends Donna into an emotional catharsis. Luckily mom has invited her former girl singers from her diva days, Tanya (a sassy Carla Woods) and Rosie (a hysterical Kara Mikula) to her daughter’s wedding, and those gal pals soften the emotional blow.

The show is blessed with a fine and talented ensemble.  “Take a Chance on Me” a duet between Cali and Mikula is a comic highlight with Mikula’s expert clowning in full tilt. Philistine’s warm vocals prove varied and great, with a powerful solo in “The Winner Takes it All” and a touching mother-daughter duet with Carlucci in “Slipping Thru My Fingers.” But the most fun of the evening might be Woods’ strutting take on “Does Your Mother Know?” Powerfully aided by the energetic Harris Turner, the number sizzles with playful sexual energy. 

Brian Prather’s set, amazing for Cap Rep’s tight space, is simply outstanding, besting what I saw in the Broadway production of this show. Josh S. Smith’s snappy music direction, Travis McHale’s artful lighting and the inventive and colorful costumes of Howard Tsvi Kaplan make the experience a real treat.  

Tickets to the production are becoming scarce, so grab one before they’re gone. Otherwise, you’ll be dancing in front of the mirror singing into a hairbrush.  And why do that alone when you can do it in the theater with a bunch of other ABBA fans.

‘Mamma Mia!’

WHERE: Capital Rep, 111 N. Pearl St., Albany  
WHEN: Through Aug. 13.
HOW MUCH: $30 – $80
MORE INFO: 518-346-6204, www.capitalrep.org

Categories: Entertainment

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