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Kavinoky's 'Mamma Mia’ brightens up winter gloom

For Buffalo theaters, January can pose challenges.

As most local producers will tell you, drawing theatergoers through subzero temperatures and into the coziness of the theater requires a little something extra.

That's just what the Kavinoky Theatre is attempting to deliver with its bright and enthusiastic production of "Mamma Mia," a lighthearted musical fueled by the hits of ABBA and set on a Greek island in midsummer.

Few pieces of theater seem more appropriate as an antidote to the cold, and director-choreographer  Lynne Kurdziel-Formato's spirited take on the jukebox classic helps us forget, if only momentarily, the harsh realities of bomb cyclones and polar vortexes.

The driving force of this production is its gifted cast, which executes Kurdziel-Formato’s exuberant choreography with aplomb.

It is led by Arianne Davidow as a young woman on a mission to discover the identity of her father on the eve of her wedding, much to the dismay of her mother Donna (Debbie Pappas Sham). To that end, she has invited three possible candidates played with varying textures of humor and charm by Peter Palmisano, Doug Weyand and Matt Witten.

Wrapped up in the whole affair are Donna's former bandmates Tanya and Rosie, whose re-connection with their wild youth is a joy to watch in the hands of Lisa Ludwig and Loraine O'Donnell.

On paper, the premise of "Mamma Mia" seems patently absurd, but in practice it's too much fun to dismiss as a frivolity. And though the first 20 minutes or so drags noticeably, things pick up by the time Sham, Ludwig and O'Donnell perform a dress-up version of "Dancing Queen" with hair dryers and other found implements as microphones and props.

Davidow, who has a voice equal parts sweet and strong, delivers a performance with just the right amount of bushy-tailed optimism and believable pathos. This works well against all three father figures and against her cardboard frat-boy of a financé, imbued with what life he can be by University at Buffalo senior William Hin.

By the time the entire ensemble is doing duck-walks in swim trunks and scuba gear, for no apparent reason, you're too swept up in the absurdity of it all to care much about whether any of this makes sense.

The show shines brightest when Sham, Ludwig and O'Donnell are performing together. They've achieved an ease and comic rapport with one another that rivals that of Meryl Streep, Christine Baranski and Julie Walters in the film version.

Despite these charming performances, some technical aspects of the show prevent it from achieving its full impact.

The bright horns and sharp synthesizers crucial to ABBA's music do not come through from the orchestra, which also struggled rhythmically during the overture. Whether this is because of the orchestrations or, more likely, a muddy and unbalanced sound mix, the effect is a dreadful deadening of one of the brightest musical scores in existence. Performers' voices also suffer from poor amplification and mixing. A sound engineer would not go amiss here.

David King's set, as usual, is beautifully crafted. But its incorporation of the theater's new "LED curtains," which display soft-focus views of the Mediterranean and other scenes, takes us away from the spirit of the show rather than drawing us in deeper.

In concept, Brian Milbrand's animations are playful in keeping with the spirit of the musical. But in practice they lack finesse, evoking the clunky, computer-generated imagery of the early 1990s and lending an unwelcome whiff of amateurishness to the whole affair.

Even so, it's likely that ABBA fans, jukebox musical lovers and those who just want a bright reminder of summer will find much to like in this production. At a minimum, it beats shoving the driveway. And it's worth braving the elements to see.


2.5 stars (out of four)

Continues through Jan. 28 in the Kavinoky Theatre, 320 Porter Ave. Tickets are $38 to $42. Call 829-7668 or visit

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