IN FLAGRANTE GOTHICTO
Empty Space Theatre, 3509 Fremont Ave. N., 206-547-7500. $10-$35. 7:30 p.m. Sun. and Tues.-Thurs.; 8 p.m. Fri.-Sat.; 2 p.m. matinees Sat.-Sun. Ends Fri., July 20.
It helps to be familiar with the books and, especially, the film versions of Jane Eyre and Rebeccathey've been grafted onto each other (along with a little Wuthering Heights) and allowed to grow wild in playwrights Alice Dodd and Jillian Armenante's affectionate ribbing.
This is the bosom-heaving tale of "Nameless," an innocent orphan girl played by mealy-voiced Annette Toutonghi in an uproariously deft manner that suggests Joan Fontaine letting it all hang out. After the untimely death of her Tourette's-afflicted father (Charles Leggett, hamboning in style), little Nameless is sent to a sadistic boarding school, where a cruel headmaster quickly labels her "a cesspool of depravity." And this is even before she ages into a governess, tempts brooding "widower" Hamilton Steadfast (Jim Gall), and runs afoul of his ominous housekeeper, Mrs. Bernley (Jayne Muirhead).
Dodd and Armenante reward your familiarity with every last cheeky joke about this florid genre. The proceedings slurp with erotic tension: Steadfast tells his smitten governess, "I can always find you when I want you," and she crumples in a breathy heap on the stairs. When Toutonghi's ingenue is unprepared for the big costume ball, Muirhead's dead-on Mrs. Danvers doppelgänger tricks her into wearing a painful reminder of the master's wife: a grass skirt and a coconut bra.
Less entertainingly, the writing duo spends whole passages almost soberly aping its inspirations; a bit in which the heroine has a tiresome, guilt-ridden conversation with a spirit strangely seems to be played for depth. The show gets a bit lumpy whenever it can't determine how much of a free-for-all it wants to be.
Fortunately, it's abundantly clear which way it leans. Steadfast drifts into a flashback about his savage wife in Act II, during which we're treated to a hula, a water ballet, and a shameless nod to South Pacific. This is to say nothing of the outrageous knock-down-drag-out duel that climaxes the show.
Director Allison Narver does here what she does bestencourage actors to dive over the edge. The cast romps with a high degree of relish. Even better than the observant spoofery of Toutonghi and Muirhead is Jim Gall's hungry take on Steadfast; he's getting every bit of pulp out of exhortations like "I shall make you my queen!" as if he'd been waiting all night to juice them. And a typically scrumptious Bhama Roget does similar chomping on each of her multiple roles (her deathbed monologue as Toutonghi's petty aunt is priceless). This is gonzo gothic, and all the better for it. STEVE WIECKING
Paramount Theatre, 911 Pine St., 206-292-ARTS. $31-$67. 8 p.m. Tues.-Sat.; 7:30 p.m. Sun.; 2 p.m. matinees Sat.-Sun. Ends Sun., June 29.
So here's the ABBA musical: Traditional, 20-year-old Sophie (Kristie Marsden) is about to get married on some Grecian island. Previously kept in the dark about her father's identity, Sophie has discovered the names of the three potential daddies in hedonist mother Donna's (Monique Lund) past and covertly invited them to the wedding. This allows daughter to coo a plaintive "I Have a Dream" and mother to look across the room at one of her former lovers and emote, "So when you're near me/darling, can't you hear me?/S.O.S." The show is dreadfully obvious but, truth be told, about a half-hour in, you're probably going to like it.
Not that it can't be a chore. For one thing, Marsden is so perky, it wouldn't be a shock to hear an Annie medley accidentally pop out of her. For another, Lund is so gravely committed she sounds like a disco-fied Glenn Close. And, lest you be put off by complex character motivation, you can be sure that book creator Catherine Johnson provides Exposition 101 ("That's why I'm hereDonna knew my wild side"). Nothing pesky gets in the way of segues into Top-40 nostalgia.
Yet, Mamma Mia! is as resolutely happy as it is dumb. A lot of the crisp numbers are pepped up with campy, shirtless island boys in scuba drag, and the show gets a lot of mileage from the middle-aged girl power of Ellen Harvey and Robin Baxter, terrific as Donna's nostalgic partners in crime. Everybody is out to please in a way you finally have to admire.
Something's always kind of unsavory about wrapping already packaged pop cultureit's like regifting, as Seinfeld would saybut musical supervisor Martin Koch's ABBA arrangements have a beguiling uplift. And who knew that Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus' melodies would have such indestructibly kitschy drama about them at this late date? Once you cry uncleand you willyou'll start to smile at the evening's sunny craftiness. S.W.