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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Mamma Mia! and
Triumph of Love

I must confess that I was not a strong ABBA fan. On our trips to the UK and the continent in the 70s and 80s, we heard ABBA music everywhere. It was affective, but I could never remember the melodies, only the beat. When we were in London in '99, we tried for tickets to Mamma Mia!, but there were none available. I could not imagine that I would like the “British” musical. I even purchased the album at Dress Circle and played it several times in our apartment, but it really did not tilt me.

When I heard it would have its United States premier here in our fair city, I decided that I would go to find out what all the fuss is about. From that first note of the overture that damn near blew my out of the theater, I was hooked. This musical is people friendly. It is one of the most dizzying evenings I have spent in long time. This is a hip swinging, bass thumping musical that is built around the ABBA tunes. You just cannot keep your body from moving or your feet from tapping to the beat. There are 22 songs in all from Swedish composers Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, and some songs with Stig Anderson. I heard melodies similar to Chess (music also by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus) in this zippy musical.

The story is loosely based on the 1968 film Buona Sera Mrs. Campbell starring Gina Lollobrigida. It has been updated to the present time, taking place on a Greek island where Sophie is about to be married to the man she loves. She longs to meet the father she has never known. She finds her mother's diary and reads that the parent was a free spirit in the 60s, having had three affairs just before Sophie's birth. Any one of the three men could be her father. She invites all three to the island to hopefully uncover her true and authentic father. Sophie's mother at first does not know about this arrangement, but soon finds out in the first act. Also involved are the mother's two old girl friends who are a hoot and you might say the comedy relief play.

Everything on the stage is not to be taken seriously. This show is great fun; it's sprightly, bright and if you don't tap your feet or clap yours hands, you'd better check your pulse. I left the Orpheum Theatre happier than when I had entered.. Also, the theater had a packed house and I have never seen a happier audience. Everyone was jamming, old folk, young folk, men and women all got caught up in the spirit of the musical.

There are wonderful highlights such as the song “Money, Money, Money” sung with a terrific beat. “Dancing Queen,” sung by the mother and her old girl friends in 70s disco costumes, had everyone jumping for joy. A show-stopper was “The Winner Take All,” sung by the great Louise Pitre. One of the songs I am most familiar with is “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” which was the theme song of a popular BBC show starring a character named Alan Partridge. It was great to hear the whole song sung to its fullest.

There isn't one weak person in this cast. Louise Pitre as Donna, the mother, is amazing. Her performance is so relaxed and so much fun that it was a pleasure every time she came on stage. Her voice is sassy and powerful, a real star performance. The daughter Sophie, played by Tina Maddigan, is lovely in the role. She has one of the sweetest voices I have heard in a long time. Mary Ellen Mahoney plays the ditzy blonde friend of the mother. This tall and lanky woman has the perfect acid delivery for the dry zingers and one-liners she has been given. Gabrielle Jones plays Rosie. She reminds me of a young Alice Ghostly and is great in the role.

The three “husbands” were uniformly good. Gary P. Lynch has a great voice, great delivery and is especially good in “Knowing Me, Knowing You.” The choreography by Anthony Van Laast is high energy. The dancers are amazing. Not only can they dance, but their choral work is top drawer.

The setting is in and around a stylized Greek taverna that the mother owns. The set revolves and there are wall scrolls that open and shut. There is even a platform that rises at the end of the production. Directing by Phyllida Lloyd is tight and bouncy. The songs fit in perfectly.

When the performers come out at the end with three disco ABBA songs, the crowd goes wild. They were dancing disco in the aisles. This will be on my top ten for 2000. Mamma Mia! runs through January 7.

The next in the Best of Broadway series Will be Tallulah starring Kathleen Turner at the Curran Theatre. It opens January 17 and tickets are now on sale.


Triumph of Love

Theatre Works is probably our best regional company for presenting failed musicals. They have done it again with a charming production of Triumph of Love. The music and lyrics have a Sondheimian quality about them. Obviously, the Jeffrey Stock score and Susan Birkenhead's lyrics were influenced by Steven Sondheim. The recitatives are remarkable.

Some of my friends who saw the production in New York reported to me that this is a much better and tighter production. They called the original production cumbersome and the sets unwieldy. Here, the company used clever cardboard cut outs that appear and disappear throughout the production.

Robert Kelly, the director, avoided the use of Marivaux's commedia dell'arte servant characters as an aesthetic motif. The servants, played by Kirk Herring as Harlequin and Patrick Flick as the gruff gardener, Dimas, play the humor straight. There was no exaggerated fancy performance from either of these two talented performers. One of the highlights of the show was the vaudevillian duet, “Henchmen”. This stopped the show and reminded me of “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” from Kiss Me Kate.

The plot centers on the tension between love and reason, and is based on Marivaux's clever 1732 French comedy. The play takes place in Greece, but the farce is presented in the French style with ideas of the modern world, where the matters of love, philosophy and irony are in line with today's world. The play is extremely witty.

I won't go into details of the plot since it is so convoluted with sub plots entering into the presentation. Basically, Princess Leonide, played by Debra Wiseman, disguises herself a young man and infiltrates a philosopher's secluded household because she has fallen in love with his nephew. She assumes several other guises, both male and female, and wins the love of not only the nephew but the bachelor uncle and maiden aunt as well. Things get complicated but all turns out well in the end.

Ms. Wiseman is superb in the role. She earlier played Violet in the Theater Works production of Side Show and has a sweet soprano voice, knowing well how to shape a lyric. She has the right amount of sass and smarts to play Princess Leonide and is able to change her role from male to female to male without any trouble. The wonderful veteran actress Livia Genise plays the spinster aunt, Hesione. Her plush voice is memorable singing the touching “Serenity”. This is certainly one of the highlights of this charming musical. She is the production's local powerhouse.

Steven Patterson, who had done many musicals at 42nd Street Moon, is outstanding as the puritanical brother, Hermocrates. He is perfectly priggish as the autocratic philosopher. It was amazing to see this actor get completely into a role. Usually, Steven's roles at 42nd Street Moon are characterizations, but here his performance was natural.

C. Kelly Wright, who played in Gypsy at Theatre Works when Meg MacKay was indisposed, is remarkable as Corine, the Princess's maid servant. She has the right comic touches. Jonathan Rhys Williams, who starred in last season's Violet, plays Agis, the prince in waiting. He is excellent in the role, but on several occasions he couldn't reach the high notes. We saw this opening night, so hopefully it was nerves and he is much better now.

The setting on this small stage is perfect. The sets are whimsical, and costumes by Fumiko Bielefeldt are clever and imaginative. Rick Reynolds' musical direction is fine and Robert Kelly's direction is right on the mark.

Surely, this is not a big booming musical like Kiss Me Kate or Guys and Dolls. It is a charming little musical that has been done to perfection by the talented people at Theater Works. Triumph of Love is playing in that jewel of a theater, the Lucie Stern Theater in Palo Alto. It runs through December 31 and tickets are $20-$38.

The next production at Theatre Works will be the 1997 Tony Award Winner for best play, Alfred Uhry's The Last Night of Ballyhoo. It opens on January 17 and runs through Feb 11, 2001.

Cheers - and be sure to check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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