On Theater: Two enduring shows offer comfort viewing

Stretching stories around a number of already established songs from a single source isn't a particularly new approach. Over 50 years ago, Hollywood produced the Oscar-winning "An American in Paris" with all-George Gershwin music and created an enduring classic with "White Christmas" from the Irving Berlin catalogue.

The latter show, incidentally, will be on view this holiday season at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts but currently that venue is housing another in the aforementioned breed — the center's third staging of "Mamma Mia!," in town for just one week and closing Sunday.

Now, Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus aren't exactly household names like Gershwin or Berlin, but their music, as members of the ABBA pop singing group from Sweden, inspired Catherine Johnson to create a show around it that's been seen by over 45 million people worldwide and is celebrating its 10th anniversary on Broadway.

After two previous visits to the center and a Meryl Streep movie, "Mamma Mia!" is no stranger to local audiences, but a welcome frequent guest, judging by the show's hyper-enthusiastic reception on opening night.

And small wonder. It's a rollicking, dynamic theatrical experience, especially for those who mourn the passing of the disco era. It's flashy, sassy and, to a degree, classy in its depiction of romance — both newly found and retro — on a sunny Greek island.

"Mamma Mia!" demands a superior vocal talent in the role of taverna hostess Donna Sheridan (once the front woman for a trio called Donna and the Dynamos). This production has such a performer in Kaye Tuckerman, who tops an evening of electric entertaining with a mesmerizing solo, "The Winner Takes It All," that draws extended applause.

Donna, it seems, gave birth to a daughter (a terrific Chloe Tucker) two decades before, but isn't quite sure of the father's identity. There are three candidates, and daughter Sophie (after a peek at Mom's diary) invites all three to the nuptials — and they all show up. That's where the fun really begins.

There's the devoted architect (Tony Clements, a late replacement but quite solid), the Aussie adventurer (a showy Paul DeBoy) and the bashful Brit but onetime head banger (the low-key John-Michael Zuerlein). Each is eager to lay claim to his parentage.

Donna also invites the other two Dynamos, and they are dynamic indeed. Alison Ewing scores mightily as Tanya, a tall, leggy, high-maintenance cougar romanced by a young Greek lad (show-stealing Ethan Le Phong), while Mary Callanan excels cutely as a somewhat stocky showgirl with an eye for the Aussie.

All this action leaves Tucker and fiancé Happy Mahaney little to do but romance between the others' costume changes, which they accomplish splendidly. And speaking of costumes, they're superb, especially on the three entertainers. No costume credit is given, but production designer Mark Thompson probably deserves it.

Phyllida Lloyd directs with a superior sense of passion and showmanship, bolstered by the crafty choreography of Anthony van Laast. Martin Koch's small but mighty band keeps the tempo humming while lighting effects by Howard Harrison are particularly flashy.

Even if you know the show by heart, you'd be well advised to catch "Mamma Mia!" before it skips town after this weekend. You may end up on your feet dancing with the cast in the gleefully extended curtain call.


'Steel Magnolias' at Costa Mesa Playhouse

Watching "Steel Magnolias" is like visiting an old friend with whom you share a contentious camaraderie. Especially when the production is as strong and evenly balanced as its current incarnation at the Costa Mesa Playhouse.

Robert Harling's dramatic comedy has been around the local block a few times — at least five by personal reminiscence — but it remains thoroughly enjoyable and laugh-inducing, a tribute to the strong ties that bind its characters in humor, in strife and, particularly, in times of tragedy.

The dramatic twist near the play's end is quite familiar by now to most audiences, given its plethora of local productions and the popular movie version, which introduced a promising young actress named Julia Roberts. Yet by that time, we are deeply invested in all six of its characters regardless of our foreknowledge of the outcome.

"Steel Magnolias" is set in a converted Louisiana garage that serves as Truvy's Beauty Shop, in which the local ladies converge for coiffures and chatter. All are strongly and individually rendered in the Costa Mesa production, under the skilled direction of Jason Holland.

There is Truvy (Michelle Pedersen), the ebullient owner of the shop, who's breaking in a new assistant (Erin Miller), a troubled young lady with a confusing personal history. They're open on Saturday to attend to Shelby (Amanda Hart), who's getting married that afternoon.

Later we meet M'Lynn (Bethany Price), Shelby's stubborn mother; Clairee (Lynn Gallagher), widow of the town's former mayor who invests in the local radio station, and Ouiser (Phyllis Nofts), the mannish, garrulous neighbor with a sour outlook but a warm heart underneath all the bluster.

Pederson sparkles as the wisecracking beautician who offers curls and comfort to her clientele, and is particularly effective in scenes where she probes for details on her new stylist. Miller nails her shy, repressive character and presides nicely over her considerable growth as the play progresses.

Hart, as the pretty-in-pink bride, is the glowing centerpiece of the show, a beauty who suffers from diabetic seizures and whose life is endangered by her pregnancy. Her caring but conflicted mother is given a particularly strong interpretation by Price, whose emotional breakdown in the final act is mesmerizing.

Comic relief is nicely supplied by the other two ladies. Gallagher excels as a stylish woman of means who enjoys stirring things up, especially with Nofts' obstreperous character, an older, set-in-her-ways harridan. The contrast in these two is hilarious in itself.

The richly detailed beauty shop setting is meticulously designed by the show's stage manager, Travis Stolp. Steve Endicott's lighting and Christopher MiIls' costumes further set the down-home mood.

"Steel Magnolias" may be overly familiar to many prospective audience members, but you'll look far and wide to find a more thoroughly realized production of it than the one currently in residence at the Costa Mesa Playhouse.


In other local theater news, Orange Coast College will offer a five-week workshop, Shakespeare Summer Intensive for Teens, for students ages 14-19, beginning Monday under the tutelage of Peter Uribe.

All levels of experience are welcome. The fee is $399 plus a $75 cast fee for materials and costumes. Call (714) 432-5154 for registration or information.

TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Daily Pilot.

If You Go

What: "Mamma Mia!"

Where: Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

When: Closing performances at 7:30 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, and 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. Sunday.

Cost: Tickets start at $23.75

Call: (714) 556-2787

If You Go

What: "Steel Magnolias"

Where: Costa Mesa Playhouse 611 Hamilton St., Costa Mesa.

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays through July 3.

Cost: $16- $18

Call: (949) 650-5269

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