Reviewed by Suzanne Angeo (member, American Theatre Critics Association)
and Greg Angeo (Member Emeritus, San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle)
Photos by Bryan Clifford
Take a Chance on “Mamma Mia!” for Nonstop Fun
Sure, you’ve heard of “Mamma Mia!”, unless you’ve been living in a monastery in Nepal for the past 20 years. Since this crowd-pleasing juggernaut of a show opened in 1999 on London’s West End, it’s been seen by over 60 million people in 50 countries and grossed more than $2 billion worldwide. It’s also the longest-running jukebox musical in history.
How to explain its enduring appeal? The story is an irresistible mashup of soap-opera-meets-sitcom laced with hilarious high jinks, sweet romance and a few moments of serious reflection. The book is by British playwright Catherine Johnson, with music by ABBA songwriters Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, who worked with the producers from the very beginning of the show. Many, if not most, of the superstar pop group’s biggest hits form the sparkly framework around which the gossamer-thin storyline is loosely draped. This show is a real love-fest and feel-good nostalgia trip for fans of pop music of the 70s and 80s.
You could say this is another version of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, as told by single mom Donna, an independent-minded American who has lived for many years on a Greek island with her 20-year-old daughter Sophie. The two run a successful taverna that caters to tourists and scuba divers. Sophie’s wedding to the man of her dreams is coming up, but she has no dad to walk her down the aisle. After some snooping, she discovers three likely paternal candidates her mom had flings with – two Americans and a Brit – and invites all three to her wedding without telling mom. Big surprises, lots of drama and laughs ensue, all to the danceable beat of 25 ABBA tunes. It’s silly. It’s absurd. And it’s fun.
Director JD Deierlein keeps the pace fast and furious, richly textured with elements of slapstick and farce. Maritoni Harte’s choreography consists mainly of simple disco-style dance moves, with the possible exception of the dancing Flipper Men (!) which has to be seen to be believed. Costumes by Anne Curtis and Michelle Kaiser range from sleekly colorful to downright gaudy. The eight-piece orchestra led by Matt Kush is more than up to the task. There are also some interesting off-stage chorus effects, directed by Deierlein, that nicely complement the performers onstage. The set by Brad Holoday is spartan and consists of two revolving pieces made to resemble small Mediterranean guest houses. It depends on effective lighting by the many-talented Deierlein to help change the scenes.
The success of this show rests squarely on the capable shoulders of the cast, who display talents of varying degrees, but the result is nothing short of delightful. The real standouts are Tracy Murray as Donna and Johannah Steinbrecher-Booker as her snarky gal-pal Tanya. Also highly watchable: Salvatore Sbrocca as Sophie’s beloved Sky, Mackenzie McIlroy as Sophie, and Bill Davenport as Bill Austin, one of the would-be dads. Some of the better numbers include: “Chiquitita” and “Dancing Queen” (both featuring Pamela Plewa, Murray and Steinbrecher-Booker); “Lay All Your Love on Me” (with the dancing Flipper Men!); “Voulez-Vous” (ensemble cast, with some great choreography); “Does Your Mother Know” (one of Steinbrecher-Booker’s best moments); and the flashy finale, which has everyone on their feet.
Will we ever know who Sophie’s father is? Who cares? They are all having so much fun up there, and are so enthusiastic, and there’s something about the music and the story that just reaches out to the audience and invites us to join in the singing and dancing. Heads-up: Non-ABBA fans may be overwhelmed by the disco-pop and dizzying cuteness.
But there must be a lot of ABBA fans in Oakland County. The entire run of this show, through September 21, is sold out. There may be a chance for tickets if there are cancellations, so it’s worth a call to the box office.
When: Now through September 21, 2019
8:00 p.m. Fridays & Saturdays
2:00 p.m. Sundays
Tickets $22 – SOLD OUT – CONTACT BOX OFFICE FOR POSSIBLE CANCELLATIONS
Where: Avon Playhouse
1185 Washington Rd
Rochester, MI 48306