The Arvada Center launches its season with a stellar production of ‘Mama Mia!’

Anyone who came of age in the ’70s or ’80s has most of the ABBA songbook lodged firmly in their brain. Even people born long after the Swedish pop juggernaut had its initial heyday can probably name a few of the mega-cheesy hits that have shown such remarkable staying power. There’s no shortage of old chart-toppers that won’t die, of course, but somehow there seems to be a separate category for ABBA material.

If one were to imagine the pasture where former hits go after they leave the charts, ABBA is the purple unicorn amid all those old horses and cows. When called upon, they don’t just lumber onto the oldies station to be merely tolerated. No, these oldies have their own show.

A musical based on ABBA’s repertoire was perhaps inevitable, but who knew it would be so successful? Even though touring Broadway productions have been through Denver several times, a new regional production at the Arvada Center is packing them in once again. For Arvada, it’s a 360-degree swing from the tragedy of “All My Sons” — one of the shows staged last season — driving home the point that theater should appeal to the widest possible audience.

According to the Arvada Center’s program notes, I was approximately, the 54 millionth person to see “Mama Mia!” since it premiered in 1999. At any given time, I learned, at least seven productions of the show are running somewhere in the world. If, by chance, you have somehow avoided falling under the sway of “Mama Mia!” throughout all this, or if you’re happy to see it again (and again, and again, in the case of my wife), the Arvada Center has mounted a worthy production replete with the gaudy suits, the hokey plot and enough ABBA material to make you think it’s 1979 once again.Mama Mia! finale

3 men and a baby

If someone had ordered me to come up with a story for a musical based on ABBA songs, I’m not sure I would have arrived at this one: A young woman about to be married and who doesn’t know who her father is reads her mother’s diary and narrows it down to three guys. Wishing her father to be at her wedding, she invites all three of them to the ceremony at the Greek taverna run by her mother. Hilarity ensues.

“Mama Mia!” starts delivering the music quickly, with the bride, Sophie (Maria MacFarlane) mooning over “I Have a Dream” and then launching into “Honey, Honey” with her bridesmaids (Emily Hin and Jasmine Jackson). The mom, Donna (Shannan Steele) soon teams up with a pair of her old friends (Piper Lindsay Arpan and Kitty Skillman Hilsabeck) for the first big production number, “Money, Money, Money.”

Some of the songs seem to fit well, or well enough, with the plot, while others are simply shoehorned in. No matter, though, it’s all in good fun and the whole point is to stage as many of the hits as possible with maximum production horsepower.

The Arvada Center’s reputation for consistently producing top-quality shows is reaffirmed here, with all stops pulled out to give “Mama Mia!” the big platform it demands. Directory Rod A. Lansberry and choreographer Kitty Skillman Hilsabeck had a strong cast of Arvada Center regulars and a few newcomers to give those touring productions a good run for their money, money, money. The stunning set, designed by Brian Mallgrave, has a level of detail those touring shows can’t always achieve, and the theater’s lighting, costume and sound designers all stepped up the plate in a big way to give the production its high degree of polish.

By the end of “Mama Mia!,” confetti is raining down, the whole audience is on its feet and even the most jaded objectors to the saccharine melodies of ABBA likely have smiles on their faces. As theatrical escapism goes, this show is hard to beat. Latest congressional hearing got you down? A trip down pop music’s most glitter-strewn memory lane may be just the break from reality you were looking for.

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