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Hokey is okey-dokey


Mamma Mia! is a hokey musical - unabashedly, proudly, brazenly and manipulatively hokey.

And the hokeyness works.

Stitching together two dozen songs by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus of the former Swedish pop group ABBA, playwright Catherine Johnson has concocted a plot that combines a Jerry Springer-style "who's-my-father?" mystery with the reunion of a 1970s girl group and an account of wedding preparations.

It's a bubblegum story set to bubblegum music and, as the touring production at the Hippodrome Theatre proves, it's a good fit. In case there's any doubt, the sheer silliness of director Phyllida Lloyd's staging and Anthony Van Laast's choreography ensure that fun is the show's primary objective.

Consider the staging of "Under Attack." Raised on a Greek isle by a single mom, bride-to-be Sophie Sheridan has found her mother's old diary and discovered her father could be any one of three erstwhile suitors. Determined to figure out which one is the one, she has invited them all to her wedding. "Under Attack," which opens the second act, is a wedding eve nightmare in which Sophie is haunted not only by all three potential dads, but also by a cavorting chorus bedecked in black-lighted bathing suits, life vests and snorkels.

That's the show's corniest sequence, but little touches are scattered throughout: a mock bullfight with an actress using bananas for horns; the mother, Donna, and former girl-group cronies breaking into one of their old songs and pretending a brush and hair dryer are microphones; or a wedding guest handing a camera to the orchestra conductor to take a group picture.

The entire cast displays strong voices and athletic dancing skills, with Lauren Mufson and Sara Kramer proving to be powerful pop belters as mother and daughter. Mufson also does a touching job with the wistful, "Slipping Through My Fingers."

The number that roused the opening night audience into rhythmic clapping, however, was the hilariously predatory rendition of "Take A Chance on Me" by E. Faye Butler (familiar to Center Stage audiences from Dinah Was and Ain't Misbehavin') in the role of one of Donna's former back-up singers.

A novel conceit of Mamma is that the songs are listed alphabetically in the program, instead of in order of performance. The idea is the element of surprise will rev theatergoers up even more when one of ABBA's greatest hits - such as "Dancing Queen" or "The Name of the Game" - suddenly crops up.

On opening night, that worked to some extent, but what really got the audience rocking was the post-curtain megamix. Performed at a volume intense enough to make the roots of your hair vibrate, it reinforced the inescapable conclusion that ABBA's music is the real star of the show. It may be loud, it may be hokey, it may be bubblegum, but the crowd loved it.

Mamma Mia!

Where: Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N. Eutaw St.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 6:30 p.m. Sundays; matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and 1 p.m. Sundays. Through May 30

Tickets: $34-$79

Call: 410-547-SEAT

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