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STAGE REVIEW

'Mamma Mia!' lives up to all the hype

Energetic choreography and the music of ABBA have made 'Mamma Mia!' an international hit. Energetic choreography and the music of ABBA have made "Mamma Mia!" an international hit. (joan marcus)
Email|Print| Text size + By Sandy MacDonald
Globe Correspondent / November 29, 2007

"Mamma Mia!" - the fizzy valentine to disco-era surround-sound featuring the music of '70s popsters ABBA - has landed at the Colonial Theatre.

And if you're among the minority who has yet to succumb to the well-deserved worldwide hype, you will want to catch it. (Some 30 million theatre-goers have attended over the past eight years, contributing to an international gross exceeding $2 billion). Pretty rich pickings for a musical genre that was generally the target of ridicule even in its garish heyday.

Fond nostalgia fuels this tale of a former "girl power" rocker turned Greek isle tavern-keeper Donna Sheridan (Mary Jayne Raleigh) preparing what she feels is a premature wedding for her 20-year-old daughter Sophie (played with assurance and aplomb on opening night by understudy Whitney Claire Kaufman).

Sophie has discovered a diary her mother kept nine months before her birth, and in it, passages pointing to not one but three possible fathers. Unbeknownst to Mom, Sophie has invited all three - British banker Harry Bright (Ian Simpson), Aussie adventurer Bill Austin (Milo Shandel), and American architect Sam Carmichael (Sean Allan Krill) - to her nuptials.

This surprisingly sturdy scaffolding - Catherine Johnson's book is as witty as it is succinct - is merely a pretext for piling on 20-odd ABBA songs, which somehow outshine themselves in the context. Anthony Van Laast's popping choreography helps tremendously, as do Mark Thompson's sunny, facile set and cheery resort-wear costumery. And no, you needn't brace yourself for two hours of beglittered, slit-to-the-navel bell-bottom unitards: they're reserved for the curtain call.

Boston's opening night - the national touring company's fourth ascent on the city so far - featured two understudies taking over lead roles, and it was still a knockout. Don't be surprised if Kaufman eventually graduates to one of the eight standing productions in locales as far-flung as Moscow and Las Vegas. With her pure, clear voice - gentle or forceful as called for, but always beautifully placed - she really deserves to vault straight to Broadway. Plus, her acting is as compelling as her singing - a trait shared by her three dads, but lacking, alas, on the maternal side.

Sure, the burdened-single-mom role entails a certain pillishness, but Raleigh - seen here a few years back in "Man of La Mancha" at Stoneham Theatre - consistently under-delivers, right up to her big 10 o'clock number ("The Winner Takes It All" ), which ends up a case of not quite enough, way too late. She's invariably upstaged by her two comic ex-bandmate sidekicks: down-to-earth Rosie (Annie Edgerton, yet another understudy, aced a scene of cartoonish seduction in "Take a Chance on Me") and her chic counterpart Tanya (Christine Sherrill, whose showgirl stature doesn't prepare you for a killer voice married to the comic alacrity of a Lucille Ball: she's a must-watch wonder).

Until I finally saw "Mamma Mia!" for myself, I'd tended to disbelieve the raves of repeat attendees. Now I'm sold.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, a review of the musical "Mamma Mia!" in the Thursday Style & Arts section gave a wrong name for the performer who plays Tanya. It is Christine Sherrill.

Mamma Mia!

Musical with music and lyrics by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus and some songs with Stig Anderson; book by Catherine Johnson

Directed by: Phyllida Lloyd. Musical director, Martin Koch. Choreography, Anthony Van Laast. Set and costumes, Mark Thompson. Lights, Howard Harrison.

Presented by Live Nation. At: the Colonial Theatre. Tickets: $42.50-91. 617-931-2787, livenation.com

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