"Mamma Mia!"

The cast of "Mamma Mia!"

The question to ask theatergoers these days is not “have you seen ‘Mamma Mia!,” but “how many times?”

The ABBA-based jukebox musical was performed on 5,773 occasions on Broadway between 2001 and 2015, has reached over 60 million people through national and international tours that stopped six times at Playhouse Square, and is popping up everywhere on professional and community stages now that the amateur licensing rights have been released.

Three local productions of “Mamma Mia!” will be playing this weekend, including this one by the Mercury Theatre Company with director Pierre-Jacques Brault and musical director Eddie Carney at the helm.

The musical is about an independent, single mother named Donna (Kera O’Bryon) who owns a small hotel on an idyllic Greek island. Her spirited daughter, Sophie (Brooke Vespoli), is about to get married to Sky (Chad Harris) and invites to the wedding three men from her mother’s past (Joe Monaghan, Brian Marshall and Dan DiCello) to discover which is her father. Also at the wedding are Donna’s adorable friends and former band mates, Tanya (Amy Fritsche) and Rosie (Jennifer Myor), as well as Sophie’s equally adorable best friends, Ali (Amy Bransky) and Lisa (Kris Lyons).

In truth, this paper-thin storyline is merely a vehicle to string together 26 of ABBA’s caffeinated and highly synthesized 1970’s disco tunes, which often erupt with very little if any provocation. But the songs are remarkably infectious, the characters who sing them are simply drawn and very endearing, and the romantic moral at the end of the story – that true love comes but once in a lifetime – brings back fans for multiple viewings.

What has proven elusive in most of the productions of this lightweight entertainment that I’ve experienced is heart – a quality birthed by talent, onstage chemistry and artistic vision that is more than the sum of the formulaic parts found in Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus’ score and Catherine Johnson’s script.

While the good folks at Mercury are loaded with talent, their efforts never manage to rise above the material.

There is no shortage of wonderful musical moments throughout this production, including O’Bryon’s lovely rendition of the anthem about lost love, 'The Winner Takes It All,” and the delightful “Take A Chance On Me” as performed by Myor and DiCello. But the show is so busy moving on to the next moment that its performers never demonstrate the relationships scripted for their characters, who seem detached and distant from one another even while engaged in emotional duets like “Slipping Through My Fingers” and “S.O.S.”

And while production numbers such as “Does Your Mother Know” and “Voulez Vous” are meant to be joyous, unadulterated expressions of life lived to its fullest as performed by the young, scantily-clad cohorts working as hotel staff, they seem to be weighed down by Melissa Bertolone’s entertaining but overly industrious choreography. And it doesn’t help that a handful of ensemble members seem to be in competition for the audience’s attention rather than working in unison for a common purpose.

All this takes place in front of three gorgeous set pieces that represent the hotel, designed by Nicholas Thornburg, backlit by Michael Martinek in the classic pastel colors of the Greek island skies, and which house the small but effective onstage band (Carney, Lev Caruso, David Jelen and Nicholas Urbanic).

There is much to like in this production, particularly for those who appreciate ABBA tunes well performed, fully amplified and staged in spandex (costuming by Katelyn Jackson), but there is little to make it inimitable.

Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3 or visit cjn.org/Abelman.

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Letters, commentaries and opinions appearing in the Cleveland Jewish News do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Cleveland Jewish Publication Company, its board, officers or staff.

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