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Entertainment & Arts

The 99-Seat Beat: ‘Mamma Mia!’ It’s Tolstoy, Nicky Silver and Miranda July

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The Cupcake Studios cast of “Mamma Mia!” loves singing those catchy old ABBA songs.
(JDC Photography)

Call it navel-gazing or, if you’re feeling poetic, peering into the soul’s very depths. At L.A.’s small theaters this weekend, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina does it. So too, in her way, does inquisitive “Mamma Mia!” bride-to-be Sophie. Also the characters in Nicky Silver’s showbiz dramedy “Too Much Sun” and the Miranda July stories of “How We’re Different From Animals.”

‘Mamma Mia!’ at Cupcake Studios

The essentials: Sophie, who’s been raised by her single mom on a Greek island, is determined to figure out who her father is before her imminent marriage. Having found her mother’s old diary, she secretly invites three possible dads to the … oh, for heaven’s sake, you already know the plot and, besides, you’re at “Mamma Mia!” mostly to hear its catalog of ABBA songs.

Why this? This jukebox musical is held together (barely) by one of the silliest plots ever concocted, but nobody seems to care. What makes Michael Pettenato’s staging so appealing is that it doesn’t care, either. It’s fully aware of the ludicrousness, at times even drawing attention to it, so it just plays the situations for laughs and speeds along to the next song — which its exuberant cast sings the heck out of. Pettenato’s Cupcake Studios is itself something of a trip. It’s called that because before being a theater impresario he was a king of cupcakes in Atlanta, featured on “Cupcake Wars.” His devotion to recent musicals has won lots of fans — “the craziest audiences in L.A.,” he exclaimed as he fired up the crowd before a recent performance.

Details: Cupcake Studios, 11020 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 7 p.m. Saturday, 4 p.m. Sunday; ends Sunday. $39-$79. (323) 391-3416, cupcaketheater.com

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‘Anna Karenina’ at Actors Co-op

The essentials: Sure, Anna Karenina gets her name embedded in the title of Tolstoy’s novel, but there’s another story in there, that of Konstantin Levin, and in many ways it’s a mirror image. Anna, shunned for an extramarital affair, gets shut out by society and veers into addiction and despair. Levin spends much of his life discontented and unhappy but begins to find satisfaction.

Why this? In the novel Anna and Levin meet just once, but in Helen Edmundson’s adaptation they mingle in an otherworldly way that lets them witness and comment on each other’s lives. “It’s about two people fighting hard in a world that’s difficult,” says director Heather Chesley, whose insightful L.A. stage work includes “Occupant” last winter at the Garry Marshall Theatre. Both Levin and Anna are trying to find their purpose and live truthfully, Chesley says, but Anna’s choices, as a woman held to a different moral code than men, are constricted. A cast of eight plays the multitudinous ensemble of Tolstoy’s epic.

Details: Actors Co-op, 1760 N. Gower St., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays; scattered other times; ends March 23. $25-$35. (323) 462-8460, actorsco-op.org

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Eva Abramian as Anna Karenina with Joseph Barone as Levin at Actors Co-op.
(Larry Sandez)

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‘Too Much Sun’ by Indie Chi Productions

The essentials: Sometimes life just gets to be too much. For celebrated actress Audrey Langham, the breaking point is a Chicago production of “Medea.” Fleeing it, she heads, unannounced, to her daughter and son-in-law’s Cape Cod getaway cottage, which, in turn, pushes the daughter over the edge — yet another rotation in her mother’s cycle of neediness and neglect.

Why this? Nicky Silver captures bad behavior like nobody else, as demonstrated in such plays as “The Lyons,” seen at the Road a couple of years ago. In “Too Much Sun” he combines a couple of enduring tropes: high-strung showbiz types wreaking havoc (think: “The Man Who Came to Dinner”) and folks who head to the restorative countryside, only to experience extravagant breakdowns (a Chekhov specialty). Busy L.A. director Bart DeLorenzo, who’s staging the show, sees a lot of resonance in the idea of rehearsal. The play begins with a disastrous one for Audrey and moves on to another kind: “So many of our relationships are rehearsals for later relationships,” he says. “We’re able to try different things out, with different possibilities.” A side note: DeLorenzo has two plays running in the same venue at the same time: this one, for Indie Chi Productions, and the Odyssey’s in-house presentation of “Hir.”

Details: Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. Opens Saturday. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; ends April 21. $32-$37. (310) 477-2055, Ext. 2, odysseytheatre.com

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Diane Cary, left, and Autumn Reeser are in for some drama in "Too Much Sun."
(Adam Bucci)

‘How We’re Different From Animals’ by Élan Ensemble

The essentials: In four mini-plays adapted from the Miranda July short-story collection “No One Belongs Here More Than You,” loneliness yawns open, sending people — whether coupled, widowed or single — in search of connection. Their rummaging, though sometimes unconventional, sweeps through emotions that unite us all.

Why this? Presented as “How We’re Different From Animals,” the program was collectively created by Élan Ensemble, a group of USC graduates whose physical approach to performance arose from their studies. July’s short stories resonated with them, and with permission from the filmmaker-author (“Me and You and Everyone We Know”), they’ve been exploring the material with director Jonathan Muñoz-Proulx, whose immersive staging of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” made a strong impression last spring. Two pieces in the group’s introductory performances are driven by movement, the other two by puppeteering of objects, augmenting the spoken text. Muñoz-Proulx calls it “hyper-theatrical, movement-based, magical-realistic storytelling.”

Details: Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., L.A. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays; ends March 24. $25. (310) 990-2023, elanensemble.com

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Tarah Pollock and Julián Juaquín in "How We're Different From Animals."
(Meredith Adelaide)
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The 99-Seat Beat appears every Friday. Our reviewers shortlist offerings with an emphasis on smaller venues. Some recommendations are shows we’ve seen; others are based on the track record of the company, playwright, director or cast.

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