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STAGE REVIEW

This ‘Mamma Mia!’ has its moments

Foreground, from left: Rachel Tyler as Tanya, Michelle Dawson as Donna, and Kittra Wynn Cooper as Rosie in “Mamma Mia!’’ at the Colonial Theatre. Foreground, from left: Rachel Tyler as Tanya, Michelle Dawson as Donna, and Kittra Wynn Cooper as Rosie in “Mamma Mia!’’ at the Colonial Theatre. (Carol Rosegg)
By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / December 18, 2009

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Maybe it’s time to remove the exclamation point.

It’s not that the thrill is entirely gone from “Mamma Mia!’’, which has returned to Boston for a stint at the Colonial Theatre. There are moments, especially when the entire ensemble is dancing, spinning, and sliding its way through an infectious Abba tune, when it’s still a rollicking party.

But the law of diminishing returns seems to be kicking in. This “Mamma Mia!’’ lacks the sustained electricity that has characterized the sharpest productions of this quintessential jukebox musical.

The dialogue is no more inane than it ever was, the characterizations are no thinner, and the transitions into song are no more sudden or arbitrary. However, such flaws are more noticeable when, as is the case here, the romantic leads lack chemistry and too much of the acting and singing lacks distinction.

A case in point: During what should be a dramatic moment in Act 2, some members of the audience burst into laughter when Donna (Michelle Dawson) launched into “The Winner Takes It All’’ in the middle of an argument with Sam (John Hemphill), her onetime lover and the possible father of Donna’s about-to-be-wed daughter.

The critic’s fairness doctrine compels me to mention at this point that much of the audience seemed to generally enjoy “Mamma Mia!’’, and that a goodly number of them sprang to their feet and danced during the finale, which included renditions of the title song followed by the exuberant “Dancing Queen’’ and “Waterloo.’’

Perhaps it was inevitable that such a pulverizing box-office phenomenon would come to seem formulaic. “Mamma Mia!’’ has grossed more than $2 billion in the 10 years since it opened in London’s West End, and the 2008 film version starring the ageless and luminous Meryl Streep has so far raked in more than $600 million worldwide. The franchise is so indestructible that it survived even the spectacle of Pierce Brosnan croaking out songs like Poe’s Raven. (Audiences to Brosnan: Nevermore!)

All in all, Abba’s ear-candy has been almost as omnipresent in the Aughts as it was in the 1970s, and how many pop bands can make that claim? Just this week it was announced that Abba will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The musical’s storyline is both threadbare and preposterous, no more than a pretext for the songs, which is usually not a problem because the songs are so catchy. Before she gets married, 20-year-old Sophie (a winsome Liana Hunt, who gains in assurance as the evening goes on) is determined to finally learn who her father is. “I want to get married knowing who I am!’’ she wails.

So, unbeknownst to her mother, Sophie has invited the three most likely suspects to her wedding on the Greek island where she and Donna live: Sam, Harry (John Michael Zuerlein), and Bill (a solid Martin Kildare). All of them played starring roles in the diary of her love life that Donna kept two decades earlier, and Sam, for one, would like another shot.

It is Donna who should occupy the emotional center of “Mamma Mia!’’, but there is not enough expressive color in Dawson’s performance. Donna remains strangely apart from the other characters, even when she should be connecting, as when she sings “Slipping Through My Fingers,’’ a wistful meditation on the rapid passage of time, to Sophie. Nor does she make us care all that much about Donna’s romantic dilemma. Hemphill bears some responsibility for this, too. Though he sings well enough, he generates few of the necessary sparks between him and Dawson. When Sam claims to have carried a torch for two decades for Donna, we don’t feel it.

As is often the case with “Mamma Mia!’’, most of the highlights revolve around Donna’s two friends, Tanya and Rosie, played by Rachel Tyler and Kittra Wynn Coomer, respectively. As Tanya, the thrice-married sexpot, Tyler is a delight, especially when she toys with her young admirers like a cat with a ball of yarn, both flirtatious and dismissive, in a rambunctious “Does Your Mother Know.’’

In “Take a Chance on Me,’’ where Rosie makes a play for Bill, Coomer cycles from tentativeness to self-deprecation to full-out lust. Her predatory pursuit is amusingly literalized when Kildare, scrambling to escape her, raises a chair like a lion-tamer.

The audience laughs wholeheartedly, and for the right reasons, and we are wholly immersed in the moment. “Mamma Mia!’’ could use more moments like that.

MAMMA MIA!

Music and lyrics by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus. Book by Catherine Johnson.

Directed by Phyllida Lloyd.

Sets, Mark Thompson. Lights, Howard Harrison. Choreography, Anthony Van Laast.

At: Colonial Theatre, through Dec. 27. Tickets $42.50-$91, through Ticketmaster, 1-800-982-2787, www.Broadway

AcrossAmerica.com/Boston.

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