Mamma Mia! returns: How can we resist you?

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ABOVE: Christine Sherrill (center, top) is Donna Sheridan with the company of Mamma Mia! 25th Anniversary Tour at the Golden Gate Theatre as part of the BroadwaySF season through Dec. 10. BELOW: Grant Reynolds (front) is Sky, the groom, with members of the company. Photos by Joan Marcus

When Mamma Mia!, the jukebox musical recycling the hits of ABBA, had its U.S. premiere in November of 2000, I was there in the audience at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre, singing along and admiring the way director Phyllida Lloyd and book writer Catherine Johnson shoehorned beloved pop hits into a manufactured plot. There’s a wedding on a little Greek island and the bride, raised by a single mom, is determined to figure out which of her mother’s three old flames is her father. So the mom’s money woes erupts into “Money, Money, Money” and a wedding kerfuffle ends in “I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do.” A bachelorette bash continues the repetitive song title theme with “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)” and an older woman rebuffs a young man’s advances with “Does Your Mother Know.”

It was all good fun, and nearly 25 years later, it still is. The 25th anniversary touring production is rolling through San Francisco, this time at the Golden Gate Theatre, as part of the BroadwaySF season. This is probably the fourth or fifth time I’ve seen the show, and I will say the returns are definitely diminishing. The most bothersome aspect of this production is its sound design and music direction. If the show can’t be good, it can certainly be LOUD, or at least that seems to be the theory in play here. And the six-piece band honestly comes across as a pretty talented high school ABBA tribute band. All those meticulous production details that made ABBA songs some of the most immaculately constructed pop songs of all time are blurred and buried in washes of electric keyboard programming that barely feels live.

Disney’s The Lion King (also in town for the holiday season) actually has a lot in common with Mamma Mia!. Both have been around for a quarter of a century and both are still going strong around the globe. Both have earned billions at the box office (King’s $8 billion to Mamma’s $4 billion). And each has its distinctive appeal. Disney offers puppets, masks and gorgeous spectacle. And Mamma Mia! has those glorious, spirit-lifting pop songs. But in this tour, some of the voices, the orchestra and the volume are not doing those songs any favors.

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That said, the Mamma Mia! machine still motors on, with some aspects as enjoyable as ever. Act 1 still has most of the fun. Three women re-living their days of being glam-rock singers yields irresistible “Chiquitita” and “Dancing Queen” and a bachelor party in scuba gear is still a blast in “Lay All Your Love on Me.”

Of the voices on stage, my favorite belongs to Carly Sakolove, an old pal of the bride’s mom. She gets a lively solo in “Take a Chance on Me,” but she could sing the whole score, and I’d be happy. Her way with the comedy (such as it is) also has a nice punch. That’s also true of Jalynn Steele as another old friend – this one rich, oft-divorced and full of wisecracks.

Act 2 gets bogged down with ballads and plot, but that leaves the best for last. The curtain call, when all pretense of story are banished, becomes a ’70s flashback concert with shiny costumes, some reprises of songs from the show (“Dancing Queen,” “Mamma Mia”) and one that isn’t (“Waterloo”). Pure, unadulterated (and perhaps I mentioned about this production) loud ABBA music that we are invited to sing and dance to. After all, isn’t that what Sondheim and Rodgers and Hammerstein were aiming for when they kept reinventing musical theater?

Back in 2000, when I reviewed Mamma Mia! for the first time, I wrote: “The end result is an earnestly pleasing show that tries hard to be a real musical with a real plot but never extends much beyond a new way to hear old favorites.”

I stand by that, and I don’t think I need to see the show again – or at least not until it gets some dark, wonderful reimagining. Could be a long wait.

Mamma Mia! The 25th Anniversary Tour continues through Dec. 10 as part of the BroadwaySF season at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $. Running time: . Call 888-746-1799 or visit
The show moves to the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts Dec. 12-17 as part of the Broadway San Jose season. Click for info.