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Theater Commentary:

My, My – Why This Maniacal Obsession with "Mamma Mia?!"


"Mamma Mia!" – now extended through Aug. 11 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre – isn’t a musical. It’s a pop marketing invasion that won’t be retreating any time soon. The show seems innocent enough – a collection of ABBA’s greatest hits woven into a breezy story set on a Greek island where a young bride-to-be sets out to find her real father. But when one actually experiences this so-called story by Catherine Johnson -- advanced solely through retro-fitted ABBA songs – it becomes gratingly obvious that the whole show is aimed at selling outrageously high tickets (top price: $77.50) and "ABBA Gold" CDs prominently displayed in the lobby and every record store across the Loop.

I personally have nothing against songwriters Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus’ music. In fact, "Dancing Queen," "S.O.S." and "Super Trouper" are affectionately linked to my adolescence. And these savvy Swedes certainly have every right to spark their own revival. My concern is that they’re misleading audiences by labeling "Mamma Mia!" a musical. Johnson’s flimsy book cannot hide the fact that this is simply a musical-revue tribute disguised in a theatrical genre that demands compelling transitions, developed characters and a symbiotic relationship between songs and dialogue (none of which are evident in this ridiculous retro pot-pourri).

"Mamma Mia’s" plot is pushed through pre-existing songs that were in no way written to frame a pretty vapid show about the after-shocks of Baby Boomers’ early indiscretions.

Furthermore, "Mamma Mia!" shamelessly borrows from "Muriel’s Wedding" and "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" – films that prominently featured ABBA tunes. The show takes place on the least Hellenic-looking of Greek Islands (funny, no one looks or speaks Greek – but there are smatterings of badly accented Italian and French; and the original British main characters are now Americans). It seems as if the producers have made the nationalities malleable enough to appeal to their different international markets. Apart from a rowboat named "Waterloo," it’s not clear why everyone is singing ABBA songs anyway.

The plot centers around the 20-year-old Sophie Sheridan, who was raised by her ultra-feminist, 40-something single mom, Donna, on this nameless Greek isle. The free-spirited ex-pat Donna, a former pop singer, owns a taverna. Sophie – who is about to marry a slacker named Sky (yes, Sky) -- discovers her mother’s diary, which reveals that Donna had three lovers, any one of whom could have been Sophie’s father.

So the starry-eyed bride, who seems to care more about finding her real dad than noticing her future husband’s misogynistic-tinged vacuity, invites all three men to the wedding. One’s a hunky divorced American architect named Sam Carmichael; another is Bill Austin, a blowhard Aussie adventure-travel writer; and the third is former English head banger-turned-gay banker, Harry Bright. Early on, these cardboard cut-out men seem to be more attracted to Sophie’s gyrating young girlfriends than to her washed-up, bile-spewing mom.

While Louise Pitre delivers a smashing performance as Donna, her character’s faux toughness and near-psychotic anger is beyond disturbing. When she finds out that her ex-lovers have assembled on the island, she furiously shouts, "I’m about to be muscled out by an ejaculation!" (reducing men to sperm donors – an unacceptable dehumanizing statement). Plus the audience is subjected to her two walking cliché girlfriends (and former members of her 1970s pop band): shellacked blonde gold digger Tanya and militant feminist Rosie (who ends up drooling over the bombastic Aussie to the tune of "Take a Chance on Me.") As "strong" as these characters seem to be written, they are really offensive stereotypes of Boomer women.

Of course, most fans of "Mamma Mia!" will be inclined to tell me to lighten up and just enjoy the retro song-and-dance party. And I’ll admit that I liked the music – especially the high-voltage encore that worked so much better than the contrived "musical" because it didn’t try to be anything more than a pure, heartfelt pop concert. Sure, people were dancing in the aisles (especially 20-something audience members caught up in 1970’s nostalgia), and they seemed to get into the one-joke wonder of ABBA hits pieced together to form a sappy, inane plot. The show will no doubt continue to sell out.

But "Mamma Mia!" sparks a frightening pattern. What’s next? The Monkees’ greatest hits set against a backdrop of two travelers from Kathmandu trying to get to Clarkesville, or the Bay City Rollers’ melodies shaped around a raucous Saturday Night party on the Galapagos Islands?•

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