ABBA Made Earthy

Kevin Thomas Garcia PhotoYou might look at Mamma Mia! as a cheeseball 1970s retro piece which gets its big laughs from the sight of people wearing spandex who probably shouldn’t be wearing spandex.

You might look at it as an awkward attempt to retro-fit sugary Swedish pop songs of the ‘70s into a musical theater format that’s part nostalgia binge, part romance novel and part Greek Island travelogue.

Or you might see it, as I do, as a glorious bit of pop culture subversion. Mamma Mia!, the ABBA musical running at the Shubert through Sunday night—does what live theater does best: strip things down to the basic human impulses. Beneath the glitter.

On records, the songs of the Swedish pop group ABBA are overproduced and oversythnesized. Here, they’re belted and rocked-out. In ABBA videos, everything is lit like a perfume ad so that event the ungainly men in the band look good in sparkly pantsuits. Here they look like real folks in crazy outfits, having the time of their lives.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Slickness has its place, and this show certainly has moments when a little flash and pomp is appropriate.

But the wonder of Mamma Mia! is how it takes these hyper-finessed artworks and renders them as primitive, brutal, emotional folk tunes and sing-alongs. It also makes these bubblegum tunes mean something. It places them within the context of enduring love, family concerns and deep friendships.

The Mamma Mia! at the Shubert this weekend is the first non-Equity tour in the show’s decade-long history. It consists of all fresh faces, none of whom have toured with the show before. An extra energy comes with some of these non-union shows—they can be leaner and hungrier and more urgent. The sets and lighting tend not to be as spectacular, so the actors have to be.

Kevin Thomas Garcia PhotoThese living, breathing, sweating special effects include New Haven native Michael Colavolpe (at left in photo), who appeared in dozens of local small theater productions in this area (many of them with the company he co-founded, TheaterMania), and has been based for much of the ‘00s in Florida. This is Colavolpe’s first national tour, and he nails the comedy-relief role of Bill Austin, the brash travel-writer who’s one of three middle-aged men invited to a Greek island by Sophie, a young woman who thinks one of these guys must be her father.

For those who know only the movie version, it’s an instant joy to realize that virtually any cast of the live show will be able to sing better than, say, Pierce Brosnan or Julie Walters. The ABBA records have been cleverly rearranged for multiple voices. They’ve also, of course, been turned into dialogue which anchors entire scenes. “Don’t Go Changing Your Emotions” is staged as a lovers’ lament. “The Winner Takes It All” is a soliloquoy for Donna, Sophie’s mother, reeling from all the blasts from the past which her daughter’s wedding guest list has unleashed.

There’s an essential wackiness to Mamma Mia!, especially in those forced connections between lightweight lyrics and a rather complex comedy/romance plot line. By the end of the show, all bets are off, and whatever ABBA hits couldn’t be shoehorned into earlier scenes “(“Waterloo”!) are just thrown pell-mell into a long multi-song set of a curtain call,.

This Mamma Mia! is sharper than the last time I saw it on tour at the Shubert in 2008. (The show has toured through Connecticut numerous times, as recently as a a couple of years ago.) The actors aren’t trying to look or sound like either the film or earlier stage versions of their characters. They have a little freedom to play to their strengths. Chelsea Williams plays Sophie as forthright and acrobatic, not as the wilting flower others have made of her. As Sophie’s mom Donna, Georgia Kate Haege has gestures and glances as sharp as if she were playing laser tag—you know who she loves, and why, just from what her eyes do when she’s singing. Don Winsor plays Sam, the most studly of the three potential Sophie-dads, as a bit of a bumbling oaf, balancing the comedy with his deep rich singing voice. The band—two keyboardists, two guitarists, bass and drums—could be fuller, but its spare raucousness also adds to the fun; there were even a couple of bursts of feedback through the speakers on Friday night, a phenomenon regularly experienced at rock shows but seldom in musical theater.

The Shubert stage is a bit small for all the shenanigans. I was sitting at the far right of the auditorium and found a lot of stage business blocked by curtains and speaker towers. But there’s also an intimacy to the Shubert that high-energy shows like Mamma Mia! take advantage of. You’re in spitting distance of folks who really seem to be enjoying themselves—at a bachelorette party, in Greece, wailing along to ABBA tunes. For a lot of people, that’s a great escape on a cold winter weekend in October when you don’t feel like seeing Yale lose to Harvard again.

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posted by: Bill Saunders on November 24, 2013  10:32pm