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“Mamma Mia!” At Balch Arena Theatre, Aidekman Arts Center, Tufts University, Friday, December 3rd, 2021 Reviewed

British playwright Catherine Johnson has a lot to answer for. If it wasn’t for her sparkling book for the romcom “Mamma Mia” even ABBA songs couldn’t have saved it, and Broadway would have never suffered through atrocities such as the Queen “We Will Rock You,” the hair metal 80s “Rock Of Ages” and the bet you thought we forgot Elvis Presley “All Shook Up”. Yes, thanks to Ms. Johnson everyone from Buddy Holly to Billy Joel to Leiber and Stoller have come and gone, pleasant enough to remind us that, yes, Stephen Sondheim was a genius, and simple enough for the out of towners visiting New York,but a blight on the art of the musical.

“Mamma Mia” moves on its stomach, it is about the book and so unlike many of the shows that followed who believed they could rest hard on the soundtrack, made a story while bubbly was also dark around the edges. A borderline bankrupt woman pays for unprotected sex with a daughter, and needs to provide answers. Every production I’ve seen has hued to the party line, underscoring the entire musical to an idyllic two days in a Greek Island filled with lovely people singing pop classics by the lyrically clumsy romcom itself four piece Swedish ABBA which IRL ended in divorce.

At Tuft’s University Friday night, the second of a three night stand which concludes tonight, the better than average production becomes a masterpiece of re-contextual angst through Amanda Wilhoit’s direction of Athena Nair’s Donna Sheridan. At first Nair’s performance is so depressed it comes across as brittle, though clearly unfair compare it to Meryl Streep in the movie. Nair doesn’t wink at us, she doesn’t soften the blow, she rides it realistically and while it puts you off at first, she is rewarded with a show stopping “The Winner Takes It All” where the production provides something the show never has before (it’s too easy going as written), a cathartic breakthrough.

The sold out “Mamma Mia” at Tuft’s University are a bunch of geeks and ganders from the science department sharing the joy of performance for friends and family. It is bright and lively and does the difficult, it makes you forget that everybody is wearing a face mask due to the ongoing pandemic. That makes it very tough for the performers if only because you can’t sing comfortably with a mask on. The story (I know you know so I’ll make it fast) is mother and daughter in the days before the daughters marriage, as they run a Taverna on the Greek island Kalokairi. The daughter discovers her father is one of three men and invites them all to the wedding. Backed by a fourteen piece orchestra, it soon becomes clear that Alexander Everbach as the daughter in question, Sophie Sheridan is a superb singer, yes her early”Honey Honey” but her heart on sleeve “Under Attack” is a highlight and the way she enriches everything she touches is the centerpiece. When you leave the theatre you get it wrong, you think Everbach sang the vast majority of the show solo, her performance is so strong and sweet, such a perfect counterpoint to Nair, the balance is in the bride to be Sophie’s favor. Nair is a subdued soul travails of life, Everbach a youthful explosion. Yet they must be about the same age. Kudos to the casting director and the choice not to have the older generation in gray wigs and wrinkles, in trusting us to see what the show wants us to see.

The music is all first rate, the 14 member ensemble (Greek chorus if you will) are wonderful indeed, most of the humor comes directly from them, dressed in diving gear at the end of the first act choreographer Becca Miller gets the roar of approval her constantly intelligent staging deserves. Music Director’s Mich Lewis and (also conductor) Stephanie Rifkin have a clear concept of the musical, and give us analog orchestrations. Just like the movie and the West End show, the men are secondary, though Tejus Govani’s Sam Carmichael is much better than Pierce Brosnan’s. The masks hurt the men in ways it didn’t hurt the women, because the black haired guys were hidden so much it took awhile to figure out who was who. But it all comes together perfectly and the two hours fly by so pleasantly you don’t want to go back into the Arlington cold, you want to remain on the Island longer.

I was invited to “Mamma Mia” by my niece Kristin Diab, my great niece Lindsay Diab is one of the deck managers. Lindsay had told me they’d been working nonstop on the production, they must have pulled it together in less than three months and they worked so hard that the hard work doesn’t show. Voulez Vous? Bien sur…

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