Monday, June 17, 2019

Review of "Mamma Mia!"

Mamma Mia!, the jukebox musical, wrapped around the songs of the 70’s pop super group, ABBA, is the perfect summer tonic for musical theater aficionados.  The production, playing at the Connecticut Repertory Theatre in Storrs through June 22, is breezy, effervescent, and entertaining.

Unlike many concoctions of this genre, Mamma Mia! doesn’t take itself seriously, with a lightweight and playful, yet well-crafted story by Catherine Johnson.  An incomprehensible story line was the downfall of the Go Go’s musical Head Over Heels from the 2018 - 2019 Broadway season and a confusing libretto plagued the recent Summer – the Donna Summer Musical.  There are no such knotty issues with Mamma Mia! 

The plot revolves around soon-to-be married 20 year-old Sophie, who lives on a Greek island with her single mother, Donna.  Guests start to arrive, including Tanya and Rosie, Donna’s former back-up singers from their days in the 70’s group, “Donna and the Dynamos.”  Unbeknownst to her mother, Sophie has also invited three men – Sam Carmichael, Bill Austin and Harry Bright – because one of them is her father (Donna had an affair with each of them year’s ago).  The daughter hopes before the ceremony begins she will discover his identity.

The score incorporates many of ABBA’s Top 40 hits including “Honey, Honey,” “Mamma Mia,” “Super Trouper,” “Voulez Vous,” “S.O.S.,” and “Knowing Me, Knowing You.”  The songs – ballads and upbeat compositions--are cleverly integrated into the production.

The cast is led by Jessica Hendy as Donna.  She is cynical, vulnerable, and resilient as the mother of the bride and convincingly flummoxed over her tricky situation.  Lauren Blackman (Tanya) – the tall one – and Jennifer Cody (Rosie) - the short one – form a rollicking trio of friends reuniting for the big event.  Ms. Blackman is decidedly feisty with skewering bon mots and a deadpan delivery.  Ms. Cody is more overt in her comic histrionics and physical humor.  Kelly McCarty’s Sophie is charismatic and engaging.   The actress doesn’t have to stretch her acting muscles as she emotes, broods, and celebrates her upcoming nuptials.  Mason Reeves, as Sky (he’s the groom), is enthusiastic and has the prerequisite boyish charm and good looks.

The men, who play Donna’s loves from 20 years earlier – Bradley Dean as Sam Carmichael, Jamie Colburn as Bill Austin, and Rob Barnes as Harry Bright - perform their roles with a mixture of earnestness and honesty sincerity.

Director Terrence Mann keeps a light touch on the material but, smartly, keeps the pacing nimble, high-spirited, and fast-moving.  The large group scenes are controlled horseplay and hijinks, while the more intimate settings are handled with ease and confidence.  The scene changes are seamless as players and crew members pirouette and gyrate on and off the stage positioning set pieces.

Mary Ann Lamb, fresh from her stint as a principle choreographer for the F/X mini-series Fosse/Verdon, along with Jessica Walker, energizes the musical with period inflected dance routines and vigorous production numbers.  They liven up such Act I songs as the Dynamo’s rendition of “Dancing Queen” and group of young wedding guests in scuba fins tap dancing to “Lay All Your Love On Me.”

Scenic Designer Tim Brown has crafted large, easily mobile sections of scenery, which are quickly moved into position to form multiple set pieces.  He has also created a magical miniature that gives a panoramic view of the coastline of the Greek island of Santorini as soothing visual for audience members.

Mamma Mia!, a frothy concoction sure to captivate, charm, and thoroughly entertain.

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