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On screen 'Momma Mia!' is mostly magical

Mamma Mia! isn't classic musical theater, but it's classy - and loads of fun.

Mamma Mia! isn't classic musical theater, but it's classy - and loads of fun.

Prepare for the invasion of the earworms, those melodies that diabolically sneak into your head and can't be removed. Few acts hatched as many of those buggers during the 1970s as Abba, the Swedish pop quartet whose song catalog enticed dancing queens and kings under disco balls worldwide. Mamma Mia! Here we go again. My, my. (See what I mean?)

Once considered a dubious idea for a Broadway musical, the Abba compendium Mamma Mia! is now a dubious choice of film projects. If the songs aren't too ancient for the youth market that drives ticket sales these days, the middle-aged actors must be. Something so quaint and sunny seems at odds with modern darkness.

Get over it. Then get down with the purest entertainment on movie screens this summer. Mamma Mia! isn't classic musical theater, but it's classy — and loads of fun.

Like last year's Beatles cine-jukebox Across the Universe, Mamma Mia! is a string-along sing-along, a scant plot dictated by irrestible songs. Musicals like Sweeney Todd and Hairspray are organically conceived, with songs serving a story planned before the first note is struck. Mamma Mia! is more a slumber party fantasy dreamed up by schoolgirls wearing out vinyl LPs.

It's the day before perky Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) will marry hunky Sky (Dominic Cooper) on an idyllic Greek island — gloriously shot by cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos — where her mother, Donna (Meryl Streep), maintains a hotel. Everything is perfect except Sophie wants her father to attend. She just doesn't know who he is: Donna had three affairs during a summer 20 years before. Sophie uses her mother's diary to secretly track down the men and send them invitations.

There's Sam (Pierce Brosnan), who still carries a torch for Donna. Harry (Colin Firth) isn't the free spirit nicknamed "Headbanger" anymore, and Bill (Stellan Skarsgard) is a sailboat-dwelling adventurer, the most amused former suitor when Sophie's scheme is revealed.

Donna gets the necessary morale boost from old friends Rosie (Julie Walters) and Tanya (Christine Baranski), her former partners as the singing Dynamos. The screenplay's cleverest move is presenting Abba's peppiest puppy love songs to the mature women: Tanya playing cougar with a beach boy during Does Your Mother Know, and Rosie urging a potential lover to Take a Chance on Me.

Director Phyllida Lloyd, who crafted the stage version, seldom allows cinematic ambition to overshadow the songs, or the enjoyment of her cast performing them. One highlight is a presentation of the seminal ditty Dancing Queen as Donna's flashback to wilder times, her lush fantasy of who she could be now, and a celebration of who she is.

A few clunkers emerge, usually involving Brosnan's reedy, strained voice. The man who was James Bond appears petrified singing S.O.S. Firth has a pleasant troubadour timbre; Skarsgard mostly steers clear of solo action. Seyfried and Cooper sound as lovely as they look.

Then there's Streep, proven to be an exemplary singer in A Prairie Home Companion and masterfully employing her acting precision while lip-synching. Her version of the achingly romantic The Winner Takes It All is a landmark musical moment, immediately assuring her 15th Academy Award nomination. Don't be surprised if this two-time winner once again takes it all.

Steve Persall can be reached at persall@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.

>>Review

Mamma Mia! John Flemi

Steve Persall's Grade: B+
John Fleminng's Grade: B

Director: Phyllida Lloyd

Cast: Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgard, Julie Walters, Christine Baranski, Amanda Seyfried, Dominic Cooper

Screenplay: Catherine Johnson, based on the stage musical

Rating: PG-13, some sex-related comments

Running time: 108 min.

On screen 'Momma Mia!' is mostly magical 07/16/08 [Last modified: Thursday, July 24, 2008 9:04am]

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