The Twinkie of musicals, ‘Mamma Mia!,’ back at National Theatre, somehow not totally stale


The ’Mamma Mia!’ North American tour cast. (Kevin Thomas Garcia)

Only about a half-dozen shows have run longer on Broadway than “Mamma Mia!,” which will disco past “Rent” this week on the all-time durability chart. It still tours, too, and a non-Equity company is at the National Theatre this week, camping it up through the musical’s catalogue of ABBA songs.

This makes the revitalizing National a poster child for the inconsistent image of tours and tryouts these days. Last fall, the National generated a lot of buzz with a rare out-of-town tryout as “If/Then,” starring Idina Menzel, premiered in front of D.C. audiences before heading to Broadway. (The musical’s first New York performances are today.) That’s a glamorous show biz birth, whatever the final verdict on the show.

Non-Equity tours — not a staple at the National until lately — are often the other end of that life span, as musicals sputter toward the end of the string. That’s where “American Idiot” was last month and where “Mamma Mia!” is now. If you’ve seen “Mamma Mia!” before, you’ve seen it done better than this.

Not that it’s a total rip-off: “Mamma Mia” is a Twinkie of a musical, sweet and practically indestructible. (If you find Twinkies indigestible, you’ve been warned.) Like the 1970s pop hits that drive it, this comic romance is upbeat and unpretentious, and a lot of the staging is genuinely fun. The party sequence of “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!” and “Voulez-Vous” remains an efficient package of ABBA energy, and the dance numbers for chorus lines in scuba wear and swimsuits are still giddy and disarming.

At least one previous “Mamma Mia!” tour — there have been several at the National — sounded a little bored with the music. This cast sings respectably, and those critical off-stage backing vocals still deliver that echo-y ABBA sheen. The acting is unhappily wooden among the three actors playing men who may be the father of Sophie, the plot’s bride-to-be, but Chelsea Williams has a nice simple appeal as Sophie, while Georgia Kate Haege (as the mother) and especially Gabrielle Mirabella and Carly Sakolove (the mom’s sidekicks) relax enough to draw you into the comedy.

“Mamma Mia!” is by Catherine Johnson, music and lyrics by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus. Directed by Phyllida Lloyd. Through March 9 at The National Theatre. (Winyan Soo Hoo/The Washington Post)

Still, you’d think that after the wrapper’s been off for a while, even Twinkies get stale. But the National looked to be three-quarters full Tuesday, and the crowd stood and cheered at the finish. Producers must know the market’s not exhausted yet: “Mamma Mia!” has posted non-Equity audition notices as the tour aims to roll on at least until June 2015.

Mamma Mia!

Book by Catherine Johnson, music and lyrics by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus. Directed by Phyllida Lloyd. Choreography, Anthony Van Laast; production design, Mark Thompson; lights, Howard Harrison; sound design, Andrew Bruce and Bobby Aitken. With Emily Price, Antoinette Comer, Chris Stevens, P. Tucker Worley, Kyle Dupree, Mark A. Harmon, Michael Colavolpe, Jeff Drushal, Royce James McIntosh, Anthony Alfaro, Francesca Arostegui, Ken Arpino, Grace Leszynski, Rebecca Mason-Wygal, Tyler McKenzie, Ale Mendoza, Brynn Smith, Josh LaMonte Switzer, Bonne Tomlinson, Jennifer Wingerter, Vince Wingerter, and Lauren Wright. About two hours and 45 minutes. Through Sunday at the National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. Tickets $48-$98, subject to change. Call 800-514-3849 or visit www.thenationaldc.com.

First Post byline, 1992; covering theater for the Post since 1999. His book "American Playwriting and the Anti-Political Prejudice" will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2014.
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