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.