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My mother adores ABBA. I remember their records playing constantly as she danced around on our living room's shaggy green carpet, trying to entice me to join her. I just folded my arms, leaned my mohawked head and leather-jacketed body back against the couch, and glared at her.
It was their MTV-splashed videos that filled me with ABBA hate—too many views of those big boobs, sequined moon outfits, blond Nordic hair and impossibly tight pants. My disdain for those tacky '70s and '80s accoutrements made me avoid Mamma Mia!, the 1999 musical comedy based on and around Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus' hook-happy hits. Factor in a partner who worships the ground ABBA walks on and too many gay-bar dance marathons embedding these songs in my head, and there was no way I was getting near it.
But like a homing signal with a good beat, I somehow felt myself drawn to Mamma. I'd see the TV commercials, and before I could scream Terence Stamp's angry Priscilla, Queen of the Desert cry, "NO MORE FUCKING ABBA!"—I was sucked in. The people in the commercials were dancing with an exuberance that seemed, dare I say, joyful. They had freakin' smiles on their faces! Not the plastic, Vaseline-teethed Cheshire Cat grins of Miss America pageant winners; these people actually seemed to be enjoying themselves. What was that all about?
So I was prepared to hate this OC Performing Arts Center production, but during the show, something strange happened: I found myself smiling.
The story is deceptively simple: Sophie (Vicki Noon, a cherubic delight with a voice you could package and sell as an antidepressant) is getting married. She'd like to have her father give her away, but they've never met, and her mother has never talked about him. Snooping through Mom's diary, she discovers her mother had a busy summer the year Sophie was conceived and isn't sure who the father is herself.
While it's never established exactly how she can track them down based on a first name and a diary blurb, Sophie sends wedding invitations to the three most likely biologicals. The men show up, and wackiness ensues as each thinks he's Sophie's dad, with periodic breaks for the characters to sing all those great songs. Catherine Johnson's entertaining book moves like a steam train, knocking most of the reservations I have about musicals out the window. The piece falls victim to Second Act Syndrome—there's some needless repetition, and the whole thing is about a half-hour longer than it needs to be. That aside, Johnson uses the music not as a shiny object to distract the audience from the lack of plot, but as a revelation of a character's thoughts, propelling the story forward.
With its abundance of focused female energy onstage, its embrace of female sexuality, Phyllida Lloyd's vibrant direction, and a feminist ending that simultaneously rejects and embraces the idea of marriage, you could argue its gynocentrism is undercut by strong women mooning over men like little girls at a slumber party—but why bother? Mamma Mia! isn't aiming to be Brecht. It just wants us to ponder how childlike we are, how needy we can be for the adoration of our parents, how fickle love (and sex) is and how human we are. And if you feel like dancing your ass off along the way, that's fine, too.
Mamma Mia! at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, Segerstrom Hall, 600 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 556-2787; www.ocpac.org. Thurs.-Fri., Aug. 16-17, 7:30 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 7:30 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m. $23-$73.
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