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ABBA cadabra 

The only question about the touring blockbuster musical Mamma Mia! was whether it keeps up the phenomenal energy and high performance standards that have made its long runs in the world's major theater centers so magical. And the answer is a resounding yes. Completing two-weeks at the Auditorium Theatre this Sunday, December 8, Mamma Mia! continues to sell out to audiences who respond to its final encores by yelling, clapping, and dancing in the aisles.

            A show-biz phenomenon, Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus' Mamma Mia! has a silly book by Catherine Johnson that cobbles together 22 songs by ABBA in a plot about a girl's efforts to find her real father, so he can give her away at her wedding on a Greek isle. Unknown to her groom or mother, she's invited the three men her mother slept with about the time she was conceived. She also invites her mother's two quirky girlfriends from her '60s rock group and enough sexy young kids to make up a chorus. They all interact and sing ABBA songs. Nobody in the show or the audience truly cares about such plot details. But everybody has a wild time with the musical numbers.

            British director Phyllida Lloyd and master choreographer Anthony Van Laast have staged the numbers not as the sort of compositions that get revived in concerts archiving the art of stage musicals, but as memorable, irresistible examples of stage hokum. "Dancing Queen," for example, is performed by Donna, the mother, and her two old girlfriends, Tanya and Rosie, as they carry on in a guestroom recalling their goofy singing trio from younger days. Making use of every sight gag imaginable --- from raunchy props, jumping on beds, donning bits of gaudy costumes, and clowning like mad --- the three woman sing the number like superb artists, but behave like The Three Stooges.

            "Does Your Mother Know..." is a sexy romp for Tanya, playing with a bare-chested boy half her age who has the hots for her. The title song begins as an exclamation of outrage by Donna and winds up with the whole cast wildly cavorting all over the stage. Don't expect a concert literally staging the songs of ABBA; this is a feel-good show working almost too hard to have fun.

            The physical production is pleasant, but ordinary, except for Mark Thompson's extravagant costumes, which range from outrageous to hilarious to gorgeous, and sometimes manage to be all three at once. I can't quickly remember another show that introduces notable new costumes in the final numbers following the first curtain call. Don't make the mistake a young couple seated near me did by leaving as the show initially seems to end. There's much more partying after that.

            Casts vary, but this touring group is first rate. I didn't find Don Noble to be the usual big-baritone-voiced, romantic leading man as Sam, but he plays the role well. And I liked Chris Bolan's dynamic, virile bridegroom Sky better than others I've seen.

            Monique Lund's Donna lacks the bright charm of some of her predecessors in the role, but she's a terrific performer, and her dramatic and vocal power in this show's angry staging of "The Winner Takes It All" is a revelation. So is Robin Baxter's comically rotund Rosie. Her romantic duet with rangy Pearce Bunting, playing the dryly adventurous Australian Bill, is a hoot. And Ellen Harvey is ideal as Tanya, the droll, much-married, wisecracking, blonde glamour girl. Despite an unaccountable accent that has her talking about getting "meeried," Kristie Marsden sings and plays the bride/daughter, Sophie, with great charm. And the cute young men and women of the ensemble, most of whom really look like teenagers, negotiate the acrobatic dancing hijinks and full-voiced choruses with aplomb.

            It may not be art, but it's a very good show.

Mamma Mia! by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, book by Catherine Johnson, directed by Phyllida Lloyd, plays at the Auditorium Theatre, 875 East Main Street, through Sunday, Dec. 8. Performances are Wed. and Thurs. at 7:30 p.m., Fri. and Sat. at 8 p.m., Sun. at 7:30 p.m. Matinees Sat. and Sun. at 2 p.m. Tix: $22.50-$62.50. 232-1900, www.ticketmaster.com.

In our November 27 review of Billy Bishop Goes to War at Geva Theatre, we provided the wrong ticket price. Tickets for the performances, which continue through Sunday, December 8, are $12 for the 9:30 p.m. show on Sat., $19 for the 7:30 p.m. shows Wed. and Thurs., and $25 for the 7:30 p.m. show on Fri., the 5 p.m. show on Sat., and the 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. shows on Sun. We apologize for any confusion.

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