THE SIMPLE JUKEBOX MUSICAL, Mamma Mia!, seems to be showing everywhere these days! The mix of 1970s and 80s ABBA pop hits are connected haphazardly by a simple plotline that adds a dramatic flair to create a show that has become a world-wide success. Originally opening at London’s West End in 1999, the show made its way overseas to the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco in 2000, and then to Broadway in 2001, where it held a 14-year run, the 9th longest for a musical in Broadway History. It’s translation to film in 2008, featuring Meryl Streep, ranked fifth highest grossing for the year and officially made the show a household name.
Cheesy? Sure. Cult following? Possibly. So, for those of you looking for a literary breakthrough, leave your theater prestige at the door. But if you’re craving a few good laughs and a little escape from reality, Mountain Community Theater’s production of Mamma Mia! offers two and a half hours of humor, romance, and ABBA hits.
Mother daughter duo, Donna Sheridan (MarNae Taylor) and Sophie Sheridan (Sydney Gorham), have been living on a fictional Greek Island for Sophie’s entire life. The feisty, independent Donna works day and night to run her taverna; she recounts her struggles in the quirky “Money, Money, Money.” Meanwhile, her daughter, a more traditional mellow, is about to marry her fiancé Sky (Eric Johnson-Dorian), and wants nothing more than the classic fairytale wedding where her father gives her away. Problem is, she has no idea who he is.
She takes a little sneak-peak into her mother’s diary and discovers that it could be any one of three men: Harry Bright, the London banker/former head-banger musician played by Steve Goodman, Bill Austin, the quirky travel author played by Albert Kent who has spent his life trying to figure out what he is looking for, or Sam Carmichael, Donna’s once love, who left her years ago to return to his then fiancé but has regretted it ever since, played by W Scott Whisler. Sophie does what any sensible daughter would do and invites them all to her wedding, signing the card as Donna, who has no idea this is happening.
Meanwhile Donna’s two besties and former members of the band “Donna and the Dynamos,” Tanya and Rosie, enter the scene. Tanya, the thrice-married plastic surgery savvy “cougar,” played by triple threat Sandi Lewandowski—clearly with as much stage experience—shows her claws in the flirtatious “Does Your Mother Know.” Rosie, the no nonsense cookbook writer played by Nicki Kerns, is also a standout in the production as another member of the cast with lots of vocal ability and stage experience. With laugh-out-loud humor, especially in “Take A Chance on Me,” she chases Kent around the theater and right into the audience. Kerns and Lewandowski’s seamless harmonies also echo throughout the theater in musical duet “Chiquitita.”
The vocals are mostly on-point throughout the show. Music director Mazera Cox-Goulter keeps the band rockin’ and the timing sharp, even though it’s obvious that some in the cast have more singing experience than others.
Gorham, who carries the part of Sophie flawlessly, told me she’s been listening to the Broadway Soundtrack of Mamma Mia! since she was a little kid. “The music is fun, and easy!” Easy? For Gorham it’s clearly a breeze, including my favorite, “Thank You For The Music.”
Hard to believe, but Donna, as MarNae Taylor remarked, “has been on my bucket list for a while.” She really won over the audience in Act 2 with her power ballad “The Winner Takes It All” and the sentimental “Slipping Through My Fingers.”
I should note that Sarah Marsh and Ana Bogren are a blast to watch as Sophie’s two ditzy friends Ali and Lisa. “Honey, Honey” is such a delight it brought a smile to just about everyone’s face.
Overall, the male vocals are less impressive. However, Sophie’s three dads, Goodman, Kent and Whisler, still pack a punch in the acting department, trading perfect pitch for heartfelt moments. Goodman is musically the strongest of the three, and has a nice moment in “Thank You For The Music,” where he plays his guitar and, later is joined by Gorham for a nice father/daughter moment. Kent’s ingenuity for humor is still strong as ever, his highlight being the game of cat and mouse with Kerns in “Take a Chance on Me.” He also gained points with the audience by offering to walk Sophie down the aisle. Whisler commands the stage in the moments leading up to “The Winner Takes It All,” pouring out his heart by confessing that he still loves Donna.
The younger generation of men definitely could learn from the older. Johnson-Dorian’s Sky is uncharismatic. The duet “Lay All Your Love” was so unconvincing, even Gorham couldn’t save it with her vocals. His backup crew of fraternity style guys is kind of funny, but ultimately forgettable.
Mamma Mia! is a dance-heavy show. The blocked choreography is detailed and precise, but the lack of that discipline in other numbers is a let-down. “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)” is an incredible moment visually while utilizing the large ensemble and highlighting the lead dancers, Leah Mendez and Sarah Mitchler. “Does Your Mother Know” is also a fun moment to groove, as Lewandowski taunts the shirtless Pepper (Christopher Crosby Cruz) with the chorus rocking out in the background.
The set is gorgeous. Designed by technical director Larry Cuprys, we immediately find ourselves in the Greek isles where we stay until we are transported to a full-on disco hall. Between the music, the lights and the mirrored disco ball above it proved hard to stay seated.
MCT’s silly and playful Mamma Mia! isn’t life-changing, but it’s a fun and upbeat escape from modern life. “Times are dark, people want to see a lighthearted musical and walk away smiling. It’s not literary, but it’s a lot of fun,” director Kathie Kratochvil told me. “It’s my era,” she added with a smile. Did ABBA have some special trick? Maybe it’s a generational thing, or a Swedish thing? Not sure. Anyway, the music is great and the script, although silly, offers some LOL humor, otherwise in short supply these days.