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ABBA fans will love this production of Mamma Mia!, but it could use a little help

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I'm puzzled.

Arizona Onstage Productions, which specializes in presenting musicals, has been around for 15 years now. It has a very respectable record of bringing us good productions, featuring some of Tucson's finest talent. And those shows have been ambitious ones, huge undertakings for a local theater. Shows like Sweeney ToddLes MiserablesThe Producers, as well as some smaller, more unfamiliar shows that we've been pleased to become acquainted with. Sure, the group has to work within limitations, most often with design elements, like sets and costumes, especially when compared to those of professional touring productions. But we've understood that and have looked beyond to see if the company delivers the heart of a given show. And more often than not, these guys have always delivered. 

But with Mamma Mia!, directed and choreographed by Debbie Runge, that campy and impossible love story featuring the songs of Swedish disco rock group ABBA, they have stumbled. The production just doesn't grab us and throw us to the ground and have its way with us, like a really good production can do. However, in spite of this, the group fills the theater with great energy and enthusiasm that can't help but be infectious.

They call these sorts of shows—stories created as an excuse for featuring a group of songs—jukebox musicals. It's not really a concert, because there is a story. But the story has been fashioned around the songs. Since the stories are a vehicle to get the music out there, this generally means the story is seriously lacking in just about every way a story needs to be. That is certainly the case for Mamma Mia!.

The "play" here is silly without a bit of depth or real drama. And really, in a way that's OK, because we are expecting that. 

On a Greek island, a young woman, Sophie (Danae Dorame), has been raised by a liberty-loving mother (Liz Cracchiolo), who, with grit and good friends, has built and runs a tavern on the island. Sophie has never known who her father was. But she's about to get married to Sky (Matthew Milne), and she thinks she really needs to know who the guy is. She has peeked into her mom's journal and realizes it could be one of three men with whom her mother was "involved" at the time she was conceived (just part of her freedom-loving, I suppose), and daughter sniffs out their addresses and sends each an invitation to her wedding: Harry (Jordan Siebert), Bill (Dennis Tamblyn) and Sam (Kit Runge). Well, this is bound to get complicated.

That her wish is an invasion of her mother's privacy and could possibly open up old wounds and hurting those involved seems lost on Sophie, who just really really really wants to know. And even if someone gets bent out of shape, everyone will just sing a song and dance it out.

Chiefly, this production doesn't feel cohesive. It stumbles a bit from scene to scene. There are some good performances, especially from the principles, but they are overwhelmed by the endless choral/dancing numbers by a huge ensemble. This thing is choreographed to within an inch of its life, and it's just too much. It seems counterintuitive, but the parade of group numbers disperses the energy of the storyline, so that the story seems weaker than it already is. But the story—and its main characters—is there, and it should drive our experience. It's very clear where director/choreographer Runge spent her energy. And she should be praised for her success in getting a bunch of folks who are chiefly non-dancers to tear up that stage. But perhaps she should have spent a little more time helping her actors with their characterizations and making sure the show is knit together more tightly. Otherwise, just forget trying to tell a story and let it be a music/dance concert. 

Jeremy Vega is the musical director, and although he gets some great sound from his actors, the actual sound equipment seemed to perform poorly, and at times an actors' words would be dropped or would seem muffled. The orchestration is canned, as live musicians would have been way too costly. But it works well enough.

The production is also a bit lacking in the design department. Scott Berg's set works well enough, except for a primitive turntable deemed necessary for a couple of scenes. The costumes, as a whole, don't really have the look of being designed at all. There are a couple of exceptions, most notably the redux of Donna and the Dynamos. The production is not visually pleasing, and we miss that because that kind of stuff helps prop up a weak story.

However, even though the production limps a little, the mostly very young cast brings it on, embracing the songs fully and generously delivering them to us. It's impossible not to want to dance in your seat or tap your feet or even hum along (your neighbor will probably forgive you) with "Dancing Queen," "Money, Money Money" or "Take a Chance on Me." And the hits just keep on coming.

It's an interesting phenomenon, this Mamma Mia! thing. There are professional shows playing all over the world and million-dollar-grossing films, not to mention a reported resurrection of ABBA on tour in 2019. But it's not so hard to understand why. Mamma Mia! is a call to fun, frivolity and fantasy. In other words, relief from the dreary and troubling ways of the world. And that is a high calling.

Judging from the audience's reactions here, the mission was accomplished well enough. For Mamma Mia!connoisseurs, this production may be a disappointment. But for Mamma Mia! Fans—and Lord knows there are many—you will be just fine.

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