MAMMA MIA!, by Benny Andersson, Björn Ulvaeus and Catherine Johnson, directed by Phyllida Lloyd, with Louise Pitre, Tina Maddigan, Adam Brazier, Gary Lynch, Mary Ellen Mahoney, Gabrielle Jones, Lee MacDougall and David Mucci. Presented by Mirvish Productions at the Royal Alexandra (260 King West). Runs to November 4, Tuesday-Saturday at 8 pm, matinees Wednesday, Saturday-Sunday 2 pm. $25-$93. 872-1212. Rating: NNN
Campy irony, embarrassed nostalgia or simple indifference -- whatever your thoughts about Swedish pop sensation ABBA, it's hard to resist Mamma Mia!, the clever musical based on 22 of their hit songs.
"Based" is stretching it. Catherine Johnson has written a story set on a Greek island about an independent single mom named Donna (Louise Pitre), her conservative and about-to-be-married daughter Sophie (Tina Maddigan) and Sophie's quest to find her birth father before her wedding.
It's Absolutely Fabulous meets Shirley Valentine, with an ABBA Gold soundtrack.
The story links the songs, sometimes effectively, sometimes clumsily, and at the end we're treated to an all-out reprise concert of hits -- choreographed like a Gap commercial -- to applaud the performers and enjoy the silliness of it all.
Libidinous lyrics Silliness, yes. There's plenty of that, from Donna's two-dimensional friends and former bandmates (played, very well, by Gabrielle Jones and Mary Ellen Mahoney) to the gratuitous skin we're shown to match the often libidinous lyrics of Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus's songs.
But if the material's occasionally thin, the show is well cast, and Mark Thompson's set economically evokes the vastness of a Greek vista or the romance and possibility of a full moon. Anthony Van Laast's choreography is less remarkable.
What's unexpected is the show's heart, especially around the mother-daughter, independence-freedom issue. As the title suggests, it's the mom's show, and although the music's appeal is broad, this is one of the few musicals aimed at female baby boomers.
With a silvery voice that can surely be heard in Stockholm, the petite Pitre dominates, belting out numbers, reconciling Donna's past with her present and creating an emotional connection to the audience with a simple upheld hand or turned head.
Afterwards, you'll be humming ABBA, but you'll remember Pitre.
EXERCISES IN DEPRAVITY, by Ed Gass-Donnelly and James Harkness, directed by Gass-Donnelly, with Glen Cairns, Karyn Dwyer, Gass-Donnelly, Harkness, Tony Nappo, Tara Samuel and R.H. Thomson. Presented by Depraved Co-op in association with UrbanImage Theatre at the Buddies in Bad Times women's washroom (12 Alexander). Runs to June 3, Thursday-Saturday at 6 pm. $18. 975-8555. Rating: NNN
With bathroom stall doors slamming open and shut, unexpected toilet flushes and people unloading their private traumas, Exercises In Depravity, performed in the Buddies in Bad Times women's washroom, more than lives up to its title.
The piece interweaves the stories of six characters: a prostitute (Karyn Dwyer), her haunted father (Tony Nappo), her self-destructive lover (Ed Gass-Donnelly), a young woman with cerebral palsy (Tara Samuel), her frustrated father (Glen Cairns, played in later performances by R.H. Thomson) and an obsessed young man who's devoted to sucking cock (James Harkness).
These six characters aren't in search of their author. They're looking for something from their past, so the washroom setting -- a place where you rid yourself of things, then purify yourself and move on -- is symbolically apt.
Some scenes are more suggestively written than others -- no surprise, since the piece is penned by two writers (Harkness and the show's director, Gass-Donnelly).
The real thrill of the show is in the experience. With room for maybe 12 audience members, we're so close we hear every drop of water from the sink, every bodily twitch and echo. As directed by Gass-Donnelly, with lighting by Steve Lucas, there's tension around the flickering of a fluorescent light about to go on, making us dread what hell we're going to witness next.
If this is an exercise, it's one that makes us examine what disturbs us and why. Is the sight of a woman with cerebral palsy twitching and almost breaking a mirror more painful than witnessing a physically healthy woman wanting to blind herself?
It's difficult to talk about performances in an experimental piece like this, but Samuel and Cairns deserve special mention as a daughter and father caught between responsibility and freedom. Their scenes feel true. You won't soon forget this piece.
Under The Skin deep
UNDER THE SKIN, by Betty Lambert, directed by Sarah Sked, with Tricia Brioux, Kelly Fanson and John Healy. Alumnae Theatre (70 Berkeley). Runs to June 4, Thursday-Saturday at 8 pm, matinee Sunday 3 pm. $12, Sunday pwyc. 364-4170. Rating: NNN
Betty Lambert's Under The Skin takes on any number of issues -- class, spousal abuse, child abduction, sex and gender. There's even a reference or two to Anne Frank and notions of good and evil.
What's remarkable about the play, and the modest but effective production at the Alumnae Theatre Studio, is how calmly and carefully these themes are dealt with. It's earnest, yes, but only occasionally does it feel like domestic-drama-of-the-week material.
Grieving the disappearance of her teenage daughter, Maggie (Tricia Brioux), a professor, seeks comfort in her neighbour Renee (Kelly Fanson), a friendly but less educated woman married to a lout of a husband named John (John Healy). As weeks pass, Maggie gains confidence, even a bitter meanness, and as she begins to comprehend the living hell of her neighbours' lives, various power struggles unfold among the three.
Little fuss Sarah Sked directs with little fuss, letting Lambert's occasionally baggy script work its way from its suggestive opening lines to its ambiguous final ones, with some clever musical choices to tip off the themes. Ted Rouse's set evokes suburbia nicely, but the play feels like it could have been written for radio.
The performers are fine, Brioux journeying from stunned mourner to surviving single woman, Healey hinting at the insecurity beneath the bully, and Fanson, with the most difficult role of all, making us question the nature of suffering and victimization.