Where has “Mamma Mia!” been all my life? I’d call myself a casual ABBA fan. I always like hearing them on the radio or if someone cranks up a copy of “ABBA Gold,” but that’s about the extent of my fandom. (Side note: “Community”’s second-season zombie Halloween episode was scored all with ABBA songs, and it’s terrifying.)
I also know from reading a book about huge-earning entertainment franchises that “Mamma Mia!” has been a theatrical smash for decades. Having finally seen Kerby Thompson’s sexy, dishy and sprightly production at CRT, I can see why. It wouldn’t occur to me that ABBA songs would make for a satisfying musical, but their keyboard-driven brand of Swedish pop fits the very lush and romantic tale that unfolds onstage. And when the plot starts uncorking all those hits, the result is a sweet two-and-a-half-hour party that leaves the audience cheering and clapping along with one of the best encores around.
The setting is a sun-drenched beach community in Greece. The occasion is the wedding of Sophie (Amanda Walker) and Sky (Jeffrey Keller, a much better catch than the callous climber he just played in “Legally Blonde”). In a prologue set to “I Have a Dream,” Sophie puts three additional wedding invitations: back in the day, her mother, Donna (Rebecca Mason-Wygal) had a singing trio, and flings with three different guys (Steven Bidwell, Jack Boice and Woody Minshaw). Sophie hopes that when her mom’s three beaus show up, she’ll know which one is her real father.
Guests arrive, including Donna’s three suitors and Rosie (Kennedy Salters) and Tanya (Erica Wilpon), the two other members of Donna’s singing trio. “Mamma Mia!” finds plenty of comedy and a surprising amount of pathos, not just from its farcical structure but also a surprisingly sweet mother-daughter story enacted by Walker and Mason-Wygal), particularly a tender scene where Donna fights back wedding-day tears and helps get Sophie ready for the big ceremony.
And oh boy, the songs you will hear. The band, under the leadership of Shoshanna Seid-Green, is one of the tightest combos I’ve ever heard, and as a guitarist myself, I say hats off to players Gavin Tabel and Stan Stewart for really nailing the particular sounds heard on singles like “Dancing Queen,” “Super Trouper,” “The Name of the Game,” and “S.O.S.”
The cast is uniformly strong, from the leads to the dance ensemble. Rebecca Mason-Wygal deserves particular mention for being able to suggest the tentative fun Donna has in singing with her friends again; she builds to a true barnstormer of a tune, “The Winner Takes It All,” a turn directed bitterly at Minshaw that brought the house down. And it must be said that Kennedy Salters is rapidly becoming this company’s secret weapon. She, along with Wilpon and Mason-Wygal, make something truly wonderful out of “Dancing Queen,” and her aggressive take on “Take a Chance on Me” has an underlying aching vulnerability. Whenever Salters appears onstage, you wonder where she’s been and when she leaves—you want to go with her.
Mamma Mia!, music and lyrics by Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Anderson and some songs with Stig Anderson, book by Catherine Johnson. Directed by Kerby Thompson, choreography by Bryan Knowlton, music direction by Shoshanna Seid-Green, scenic design by Nicholas James Schwartz, lighting design by Matt Webb. At CRT through July 27.