Karaoke saves the day for Ordway's ABBA-fueled 'Mamma Mia!'

'Mamma Mia!'

'Mamma Mia!' Rich Ryan

ABBA songs are "our planet's most renewable resource," tweeted the writer Natalie Shure in response to someone who wondered how a sequel could be any good when all the band's best songs were already used in the original Mamma Mia!

Betting on that evergreen songbook, the Ordway is opening its new production of that 1999 musical just as the follow-up Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again hits movie theaters. It was a safe bet. Playwright Catherine Johnson just about perfected the non-biographical jukebox musical, in which an artist's catalog of hits are stitched together to tell a novel story.

This story is so novel that it's not even set in the band's native Sweden: it assembles an international cast of characters for a Greek island wedding, and rather than involving two men and two women, the central romantic intrigue involves a single woman and three men. Credit Johnson for the appropriately frothy, sex-positive result.

The Ordway's production enlists top-shelf Twin Cities talent alongside Mamma Mia! ringers including director Martha Banta, who was associate director for the show's Broadway production. Banta cast Christine Sherrill, who played Donna in Vegas, to reprise the role in St. Paul, but Sherrill is nearly upstaged by local actors — including, most notably, the luminous Caroline Innerbichler as her daughter Sophie.

On Rick Polenek's attractive and straightforward set (no ominous statuary descending from the sky a la the Guthrie's West Side Story), the engaged Sophie summons three men who are all plausible candidates to be her father, having shared flings with her mother at the time of her conception. American architect Sam (Dieter Bierbrauer), British banker Harry (Robert O. Berdahl), and Australian bushwhacker Bill (Aloysius Gigl) show up to walk Sophie down the aisle, and to exacerbate Donna's stress.

Following last year's delightful Annie, the Ordway once again demonstrates an ability to create contagious fun with original productions of well-known musicals. The show's spirit is properly exuberant: these are songs that make you want to smile, and Banta encourages that tendency with a steady parade of appealing setpieces.

Theatergoers will learn, for example, that in addition to everything else veteran talent Ann Michels can do flawlessly, she can also moonwalk. She demonstrates her fancy footwork in "Dancing Queen," the song that reunites her character Tanya with Donna and their fellow disco girl-group bandmate Rosie (Erin K. Schwab, who later gets the audience clapping along to her buoyantly seductive "Take a Chance on Me").

While the supporting cast (including China Brickey and Elena Glass as Sophie's bridesmaids) and ensemble (involving leading-level talents like Dwight Leslie and Shinah Brashears) feel underused, they make the most of numbers like "Lay All Your Love On Me," which features the kind of swim-flipper dancing you thought you'd have to wait until the Minnesota Fringe Festival to enjoy.

Choreographer Mitch Sebastian shows a sure hand, which is unfortunately more than can be said for musical director Raymond Berg and sound designer Andy Horka. Berg's synth-heavy band comes blaring out like a Sherman tank; the singers too often match its inelegant pounding by belting their choruses with vocals that get flattened into an overpowering mix. The contrast with ABBA's velvety original recordings is stark.

That doesn't hurt this singalong show, though, as much as it might with less familiar material. By the production's glittery finale, the entire Ordway Music Theater has turned into a giant karaoke bar, and on opening night, people were stepping out to dance in the aisles. That kind of silly spectacle is the acid test for any Mamma Mia!, and this one passes with flying colors.


Mamma Mia!
Ordway Center for the Performing Arts
Through August 5