MAMMA MIA! Musical at the Fox Theater Review

“Mamma Mia!,” the jukebox musical featuring the bouncy songs of ’70s Swedish pop superstars ABBA, is back at the Fox, for a short run through Sunday, Feb. 18. Judging by the nearly sold-out crowd on opening night, fans couldn’t wait for its return. The show, complete ’70s sequined white-spandex and platform boots, didn’t disappoint with a fun, tongue-in-cheek, dance-heavy show.

The farce-like romantic comedy plot features multiple romantic pairings and surprises mixed in with ABBA’s many hit pop songs written by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus. Nearly every hit is heard, and many lesser-known songs too, all blended into the story.

While ABBA fans will delight in the pop song hits and retro style costumes, the real delight of this production are the high-energy, acrobatic dance numbers that add a modern twist, thanks to dancers from Saint Louis Ballet. Saint Louis Ballet is listed as the local presenter, and this polished touring production is directed by Phyllida Lloyd with delightful acrobatic choreography by Anthony Van Last

The crowd was a near sell-out but the most surprising part was how multi-generational it was. Tweens and teens bounced along with moms and grandmas to ABBA’s catchy beats and everyone seemed to be having a great time.

The pop group’s many hit songs, including “Dancing Queen,” “Money Money” and “Mamma Mia,” are woven into a story about a wedding on a Greek Island. The bride-to-be, Sophie Sheridan (Alisa Melendez), is the daughter of an American woman, Donna Sheridan (Christine Sherrill), who raised her daughter as a single parent. However, Sophie hatches a wedding day plan to meet the father she’s never known. The problem is that there are three possible fathers, according to mom Donna’s diary, which Sophie has discovered. Sophie’s plan to solve the parental mystery is to invite all three men to her wedding. Without telling her mom what she is doing, Sophie sends them wedding invitations in her mother Donna’s name, to increase the chance they will actually attend. She hopes to keep all this under wraps, including the three possible dads, until the day of the wedding.

We learn all this in the Prologue that kicks off this romantic comedy musical, from the book by Catherine Johnson. The Prologue also introduces Sophie’s two best friends and bridesmaids, Ali (Haley Wright) and Lisa (L’Oreal Roache). In Act One, we meet Donna, who owns the small hotel and bar where the wedding will take place. We also meet Donna’s two best friends, who are flying in for the wedding, much-married, rich knockout Tanya (Jalynn Steele) and independent, single, sassy writer Rosie (Carly Sakolove), who are also her former band-mates.

Donna has never told Sophie anything about her father, in part because she isn’t sure which of the three past lovers is the dad. It is all very ’60s-’70s counter-culture, and free-spirited Donna is even a little miffed that her more traditional daughter wants to get married. Part of that is because Donna thinks that Sophie’s fiance Sky (Grant Reynolds) is a nice enough local guy but not nearly good enough for her educated daughter.

Also in Act One, we meet Sky’s friends Pepper (Patrick Park) and Eddie (Nico DiPrimio on opening night), who are also Donna’s employees. When the three possible dads do all arrive, Sophie’s plan to keep them hidden from her mom until the wedding the next day quickly unravels.

(L-R) Jim Newman as Bill, Victor Wallace as Sam, and Rob Marnell as Harry, in MAMMA MIA!, on stage the the Fox theater through Feb. 18. Courtesy of the Fabulous Fox Theater

Possible dad Sam Carmichael (Victor Wallace) is an an architect, and the one she met first, but who broke her heart when he told her he was engaged and fly off to get married. The other two were shorter rebound flings, adventurous travel writer Bill Austin (Jim Newman) and British Harry Bright (Rob Marnell), now a rather stiff, very successful lawyer but then a guitar player nicknamed Head Banger. Donna made enough of an impression on each of these past lovers to lure them back to the Greek island where they first met her in their own wilder youth.

After the intermission, Act Two takes place on the day of the wedding, when questions are answered and everything resolved for maximum happy ending, in classic romantic comedy style.

In addition to the plentiful ABBA songs, the show also delivers on the sequined white spandex and platform boots as promised with a little reunion of Donna’s old band. The singing is excellent and so is the acting but the show’s real highlight is the dancing.

Yes, the dancing is the real star – with high-energy, modern, acrobatic dance numbers that gently poke a little fun at the retro music and styles. This new production has more fun and less reverence for the songs’ ’70s era but without any mocking. ABBA’s songs were always meant for dancing, so it works marvelously. Retro fans still get their fix, especially in the three be-sequined encores, and nearly every famous song gets its showcase.

The show’s plot ends with bows but quickly followed by three encores, which feature the biggest hit left out of the previous acts. The encores are always part of the show but it seemed some audience members didn’t know that, and got up to leave while the cast was still on stage, launching into the first encore. This is a big breech of theater etiquette and likely made a bad impression on the touring cast, so perhaps a little pre-show announcement might clue-in the clueless to stay seated for the whole performance, including those three encores. It was the only thing to mar to an otherwise fun show.

“Mamma Mia!” is on stage at the Fabulous Fox through February 18.

© Cate Marquis

The cast of MAMMA MIA!, on stage at the Fox Theater through Feb. 18. Courtesy of the Fabulous Fox Theater