Our beautifully renovated Saenger Theatre and Broadway In New Orleans plays host this week to the Work Light touring company of the long-running Broadway smash “Mamma Mia!,” and the production delivers all that can be expected — provided you don’t expect too much more than a jukebox of the 1970s europop hits of Abba.
The Swedish group’s writers, Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, had churned out a smorgasbord canon geared toward an international singles market.
How best to reap new profit off of that? A reunion of the enduringly popular original group? Two divorced couples who had moved on to other relationships? Too liberal even for Scandinavians.
Benny and Bjorn spent half a decade with Tim Rice working to make “Chess” a somewhat successful stage presentation and found that musical theater was not so easily conquered. So why not take a chance on themselves and convert their existing Abba work into a show?
Where to go for inspiration? Shakespeare, perhaps? Shaw? Ibsen? Well, why do that when you can cop the plot of the 1968 film comedy “Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell,” in which World War II veterans Peter Lawford, Telly Savalas and Phil Silvers, accompanied by wives Shelley Winters and Lee Grant, return to Italy and find out which one of them is the father of Gina Lolabridgida’s daughter.
While not following the old film plot too closely, the book by Catherine Johnson is of interest for how it solves the jigsaw puzzle of matching the existing music to the contrived plot and spreading the work evenly amongst the cast. Each of at least seven performers are given their turns in the spotlight.
That plot: A 20-year-old girl, about to be married on the Greek island where she lives with her mother — a one-time singer who has never informed her who her father is — uncovers leads to three possible paternal candidates and clandestinely invites each to the nuptials. Hijinx ensue.
As the Mamma Mia (Donna), Georgia Kate Haege comfortably holds down the center with aplomb and believably conveys her transformation from budding Earth Mother to resurgent Disco Queen, and back again, and forth again. She shines on “The Winner Takes It All” and is clearly having the time of her life during the staged, full-cast, extended encore. (Spoiler alert: Don’t make a mad dash for the door at the curtain call.)
Haege is ably complemented by her former backup singers, the friends every girl should have — Sarah Smith (Rosie, the funny one) and Gabrielle Mirabella (Tanya, the bitchy one).
Chelsea Williams, as the daughter Sophie, gives a knowing post-modern take on the traditionally sweet and innocent ingenue. “I Have A Dream” is her theme.
Eric Presnall plays the juvenile Sky in time-honored style, while Emily Price is peppy as the perky best friend Ali.
With the voice, the looks and the chops, Jeff Drushal, as Sam, quickly emerges as the odds-on favorite of the trio of potential Pappas — including Michael Colavolpe and Mark A. Harmon (Bill and Harry) — to pass the proverbial paternity test.
The set is simple and the lighting is this side of elaborate, all the better to tour with. The vocal work is good and the choreography serviceably ’70s.
While suspense is short in the script, the show did clear up one decades-old mystery for me. The lyric turns out to be “Honey, I’m still free! Take a chance on me!” Not, as I’d always heard it, the surreptitiously winsome, “Olly oxen free, take a chance on me.”