Sing-along ABBA songs save a plot-weak 'Mamma Mia!'

The out-of-town buzz from its successful runs in London, Toronto, and Boston was that "Mamma Mia!" was going to be the first musical hit of the 2001-2002 Broadway season. But the rumors have turned out to be only partly right.

The spectacular $10 million show - built loosely around some two dozen songs by the '70s Swedish pop group ABBA with music and lyrics by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus - has already chalked up ticket sales second only to the megahit "The Producers," and is expected to run for years.

The only time the musical bogs down a bit is when its rousing numbers like "Leaving Me, Leaving You," "The Winner Takes It All," and "Mamma Mia!" stop along their merry and heart-throbbing way for the show's wafer-thin plot.

In a nutshell, 20-year-old Tina is about to get married and yearns for the kind of love and stability she lacked as a child. She desperately wants her father to give her away, but he could be any of three men her Mom once dated.

When she secretly invites all three to the wedding, mother, daughter, and would-be dads are off and running down their own yellow brick road of magical memories and current delight.

Even amid such TV soap-opera-like dialogue as "Mom, get off, I'm not a baby," to which Mom replies, "I know, but you're still my daughter," the syncopated rhythm of the ABBA songs, coupled with Anthony Van Laast's whimsical high-energy choreography, soar to such dizzyingly delightful heights that the show always gets going again.

As the mother, Donna, whose independent daughter refuses to take her advice, Louise Petre displays an extraordinarily lovely and powerful voice. As an actress, she gives poignant meaning even to the most mundane exchanges, such as the one above.

The daughter, Sophie, played by Tina Maddigan, who originated the role in Toronto, is a newcomer to Broadway and a major find. She's captivating as a modest girl whose voice is as big and enthralling as her heartfelt optimism.

Broadway veteran Karen Mason, as one of Donna's old friends with whom she once played in a rock 'n' roll trio, displays a comic genius that was never apparent when she took over the lead role of Norma Desmond from Glenn Close in Andrew Lloyd Webber's melodramatic musical "Sunset Boulevard" several years ago.

Overshadowing even these standout performances are the standout songs, many of which will be familiar to fans of ABBA, which has sold some 350 million records and CDs all over the world since the group was formed in 1973. (It broke up in 1982.)

Some of these familiar numbers seem arbitrarily sandwiched into the story, even though many in the audience enjoyed seeing just how the show's creators would sneak them in.

But under the masterful direction of Phyllida Lloyd, "Mamma Mia!" remains a self-depreciating homage to the 1970s, a wondrous mix of humor and hope that New York and the world will want a lot more of - in the words of one of its songs, "Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!" - and now have on Broadway.

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