Writer Catherine Johnson has stitched a fluffy narrative around 22 ABBA tunes, and the results are remarkably seamless. Of course, it doesn't hurt that one of the central characters used to be the lead singer for a small-time all-girl '70s trio. Nowadays, though, Donna (Monique Lund) is an overworked, though still sexy, single mom who owns and runs a small hotel on a tiny Greek island. Daughter Sophie (Kristie Marsden), who's getting married, discovers her mother's diary and learns that her father, whom she's never met, could be any one of three men. (Before you go getting your safe-sex knickers in a twist, just remember that Donna came of age in the swinging '70s.) Sophie wants to know her dad, so she secretly invites all three of her mother's ex-lovers to the island for her wedding. That they all come, no questions asked, is the sort of stretch of imagination you have to accept to enjoy this kind of show.
One of the best things anyone could say about Mamma Mia! is that it doesn't take itself too seriously. In these days of overproduced musicals asking us to accept dancing teacups and singing lion cubs as meaningful characters, it's hard to resist any production so willing to poke fun at itself. One number features a chorus of buff boys dressed in scuba skivvies and flippers who flop their way through hysterical dance steps. Another has Donna and her gal pals Tanya (Ellen Harvey) and Rosie (Lauren Mufson) remembering the old days while they sing into their hairbrushes. The story bops along like a sitcom accompanied by really great pop tunes.
And the performances don't hurt the production's appeal. Marsden's enormous voice blasts out tunes like "Dancing Queen" with a joy that can bring an audience to its feet. And she turns "Slipping Through My Fingers," about children growing up too fast, into a plaintive cry of loss and love. Harvey and Mufson make naughty sidekicks who fill the show with raunchy jokes that keep the grown-ups happy but fly right over the kids' heads. Marsden's young Sophie is a powerhouse of energy who attacks her dance numbers with wild abandon. Her voice is capable except when she's reaching for high notes. The men in the cast provide fine backup, but the women clearly dominate.
Even the most cynical too-cool-for-ABBA naysayer will grin at the generous spirit of this show. But don't go looking for deep truths; Mamma Mia! is simply a vehicle for some of the most commercial pop music ever made. The opening-night audience stuck around for a three-song curtain call. They swayed back and forth to the beat, raised their hands in the air and sang along to the music, lingering as long as they could in the recaptured days of the dancing queen.
Horton Foote's most famous play, The Trip to Bountiful, celebrates its 50th anniversary at the Alley Theatre with a tender new production directed by Michael Wilson. The story of stoic heartache begins with Jeff Cowie's set, a stripped-down, Southern world of reduced circumstances where Mrs. Carrie Watts lives with her ineffectual son and hateful daughter-in-law. Their beds are spread in faded chenille. The handful of treasures they own are held in modest dressers pushed back against thin walls.
Carrie (Dee Maaske) longs to escape this sorry state of affairs with a trip back to Bountiful, the farm town she left some 20 years ago. The modest story follows her as she slips out from under the watchful gaze of her greedy daughter-in-law, embarks on a nighttime bus ride through small towns, meets a few ordinary folk and arrives at a place full of regret and longing and fantastic beauty. The central power of Foote's writing is in the simplicity of this tale, the ordinariness of the central character's desire. Carrie Watts wants what most of us want: some control over her own small destiny. That she has so much trouble getting it speaks to the core of what it means to be human.
Of course, Foote is also famous for quiet storytelling that lingers in simple moments. The opening scene involves nothing but Carrie in a rocking chair singing a hymn by an open, moonlit window. This sort of hushed reverie needs strong performers, and Maaske is mesmerizing. She finds the balance between fragile tenderness and old leathery strength that makes Carrie a woman you can admire and pity all at once.
Hallie Foote's Jessie Mae is less successful. She is certainly hateful: The feather-brained, mean-spirited daughter-in-law steals Carrie's pension check and spends her days in the beauty parlor, leaving Carrie to clean up after her. But Foote has a strange, distracted way of looking out to the audience when she speaks, and her energy wanes when she's not speaking. Even odder is the casting of Devon Abner as Ludie Watts, Carrie's hopeless son. While his character is supposed to be browbeaten, it seems a mistake to have him speak always in a flat monotone, as though he suffered from some sort of head trauma rather than a broken heart.
Happily, the story focuses on Carrie, and Maaske's rich performance is a fine tribute to one of America's most important writers.
Through April 27 at the Hobby Center, 800 Bagby, 713-629-3700. $37.25-$77.25.
The Trip to Bountiful
Through May 10 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue, 713-228-9341. $35-$50.