By Wendy Rosenfield
for the Inquirer
If we're judging strictly by box office numbers, Mamma Mia! marks a watershed for women in theater. Produced, written, and directed by women, since its 1999 London premiere the show has been everywhere, done everything, and raked in billions of dollars to the tunes of an Abba soundtrack. This still-surprisingly feminist plot set on a romantic Greek isle is the Aphrodite of all jukebox musicals: a work so pleasing to the eye and ear that none can resist its charms.
Except we're not judging by numbers, we're judging this particular tour (the show's third U.S. tour, and seventh pass through Philadelphia). By that standard, this production feels very much like a copy of a copy, each successive production shedding more of that beloved harmonic shimmer. This isn't a Swedish pop rom-com with enough wattage to light up the midnight sun; it's Stockholm syndrome.
The trouble isn't just that the band often plays far louder than the actors can sing. It's that the cast has trouble hitting their notes anyway. Single mom Donna (Georgia Kate Haege), her pals Tanya (Gabrielle Mirabella) and Rosie (Carly Sakolove), and daughter Sophie (Chelsea Williams) need to carry most of these tunes.
Haege fares best in the back-to-back numbers "Slipping Through My Fingers" and "Our Last Summer," solos that make up the emotional core of Mamma Mia! The former is a mother's ode to feelings about her daughter's coming marriage, the latter a woman's recollection of decades-old romance with one of that daughter's three potential fathers. However, they all struggle with the lower registers, and though miked, can't manage to make some lines audible.
What success this production sees is largely thanks to Haege, a spunky presence with blond Raggedy Ann curls and a gymnastic spring in her step. Mirabella, Sakolove, and Williams gamely fill all two dimensions of their roles, and the three dads march competently (at best) and cartoonishly (at worst) through their paces. But even the show's famous curtain-call dance party doesn't have the same ebullience this time around. There's no confetti or calls for the crowd to get up and dance, though of course they do; at this point, even the customers perform their roles by rote. The winner takes it all, all right. It's just a shame that winner isn't the audience.
Through Sunday at the Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Streets. Tickets: $20-$105.50. 215-731-3333 or www.KimmelCenter.org.