Pillow Talking’s Review of MAMMA MIA!Published: Monday, May 8, 2017 By: Stephanie Lyons & Wayne Keeley Source: Someday Productions LLC
Merriam-Webster’s definition of escapism is: habitual diversion of the mind to purely imaginative activity or entertainment as an escape from reality or routine. My husband/co-reviewer absolutely loves to use the term “escapist entertainment” when referring to those kinds of productions, films, TV shows, or other forms of enjoyment that transport you to that relaxed, contented place in your head. That place where you don’t have to “think” too hard and you can forget all your troubles for a few hours. Where you become immersed in someone else’s story and it’s all in fun, requiring nothing more than a pair of working eyes and ears, an open mind.
And that’s precisely what will happen when you see Westchester Broadway Theatre’s (WBT) newest theatrical incarnation, Mamma Mia!, capably directed and choreographed by Mark Martino. With a book by Catherine Johnson, music & lyrics by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus (former members of the chart-topping Swedish pop group ABBA), and additional songs by Stig Anderson (ABBA’s manager), it was the eighth longest-running show in Broadway history for good reason. It’s a non-stop musical extravaganza featuring a plethora of singable, danceable selections from the ABBA songbook – woven into bouncy story of a young girl about to leap into the responsibilities of adulthood, but before she does, she’s compelled to take a giant step back into her past for some long-overdue personal closure.
The production’s title Mamma Mia! also is the title of ABBA’s 1975 hit song. With a female-led cast, we meet Sophie, the 20-year-old daughter of single “Mamma” Donna, who has waited for two frustrating decades to find out the other half of her parentage. Discovering Donna’s old journals, Sophie finds a window into the summer of her conception – but the problem she learns, is that mom got a little busy that season – and it could be either of three men. So instead of openly asking her tight-lipped mother (we’d have no story otherwise!), she surreptitiously elects to track down each of the former suitors and invite the eclectic trio to her wedding, signing the invitation as Donna. Once they arrive on the Greek Island of Kalokairi where the mother-and-daughter duo reside, she’s certain she’ll be able to figure whose genes she’s been given.
Things don’t go quite as planned (do they ever?) – Sophie’s confused and Mamma is mad, but despite it all, the wedding guests are partying hard around them and the audience gets to hear one fabulous song after another, each of which tells a story. Hits like “Dancing Queen,” “I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do,” “Lay All Your Love on Me,” “S.O.S.,” “Souper Trouper,” “Take a Chance on Me,” and “The Winner Takes it All,” among others are woven through the dialogue and action as any infectiously good jukebox musical does.
Westchester Broadway first-timer Mariah McFarlane is adorable as the hopelessly romantic, but mildly tortured Sophie. Her voice and irrepressible spirit are captivating. WBT favorite Michelle Dawson is a phenomenal Donna, bringing just the right amount of zany free-spiritedness (after all, she was formerly with “Donna and the Dynamos”) coupled with both strength and vulnerability to the role. She also has a killer voice as we’ve heard in such WBT productions as Saturday Night Fever (Candy) and Man of La Mancha (Aldonza). Elise Kinnon is hysterical as the snarky socialite Tanya, friend to Donna and former member of the Dynamos (she also is associate director and associate choreographer). Lilly Lewis stepped in as understudy (ordinarily part of the Ensemble) and was a delight as the quirky Rosie, the other Dynamo.
For the men, Brent Bateman aptly stepped into the role of architect Sam Carmichael the night we attended (he ordinarily plays Bill Austin). The first of Donna’s lovers, a charming straight-shooter, he could be the one, that is, depending upon her ovulation calendar. Kilty Reidy as Harry Bright is charming and truly excited at the prospect of being Sophie’s dad – especially considering the course his life took after leaving Greece, fatherhood had never been in his plan. Tanner James Rampton is excellent as the writer, adventurer Bill (ordinarily he’s non-performing swing) another of the possible sperm donors.
Friends of the engaged couple bring just the right level of youthful enthusiasm to the production. Cameron Anika Hill as Lisa (and Ensemble) and Sydney Patrick as Ali (and Ensemble) are perfectly giddy and fun. Nathan Cockroft as Sky is the loving fiancé to Sophie and he with his band of cronies often show off some killer abs and incredible dance moves, including Matty Rickard as Eddie (as well as Ensemble and Dance Captain) and Connor Wince as Pepper (and Ensemble). The rest of the talented Ensemble round out the cast including Deshawn Bowens, Brian Dillon, Brett-Marco Glauser, Alicia Hemann, Bailey Purvis, Charity Van Tassel, and Kyle White (who also plays Father Alexandrios).
A major shout out to Steve Loftus for a magnificent set design – the essence of Greek architecture was beautifully achieved. Thank you to Jeff Hendry for costume design and Matthew Hemesath for costume coordination; Andrew Gmoser for lighting design; Mark Zuckerman for sound design; and Gerard Kelly for hair/wig design. As always, an assembly of talented musicians – kudos to Eric Alsford as music director and keyboardist; Ryan Wise as assistant music director and keyboardist; Ken Ross on drums; Jordan Jancz, David Shoupe, and Nick Dickerson all on electric and acoustic bass; and Von Ann Stutler as musical contractor.
An effectively infectious confection, Mamma Mia really is the perfect escape. It felt like we all were invited to the party, and who doesn’t have a great time at a wedding! Thank you Westchester Broadway Theatre for putting us all on the guest list!
In a way, I’m kind of a bystander looking at this phenomenon that is ABBA, which is still around, and that I thought would be finished in 1981 and forgotten. I’m amazed how this could happen, and I don’t know why it happened. I’m just grateful and humble. I just sit back and enjoy. – Björn Ulvaeus
The above quote stated by one of the members of the internationally bestselling band, ABBA, can be applied not only to the iconic music that it produced, but to Westchester Broadway Theatre’s (WBT) stage version of Mamma Mia! The jukebox musical, which is based on the songs of ABBA, feature such megahits as “Dancing Queen,” “Take a Chance on Me,” “SOS,” and, of course, the title track, “Mamma Mia.” But you don’t have to be a die-hard fan of ABBA to enjoy it. In fact, you don’t even have to know who ABBA is. The musical numbers, which are individually show-stopping in and of themselves, fit neatly around an engaging story written by British playwright Catherine Johnson.
It seems twenty-year-old Sophie is about to marry her fiancé much to the chagrin of her single mother Donna who feels she is to young and naïve to wed. We discover this is not surprising, since Donna, in her younger days, was a bit wild and impetuous herself. Sophie finds her diary about three intimate liaisons with three different men – all around the time she was conceived. Determined to find out who her real father is, she invites all three of them to the wedding. Without giving anything away, as you can imagine, chaos, comedy, and confusion ensue.
The story follows almost exactly the plot of the 1968 film, Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell, starring Gina Lollobrigida, with Peter Lawford, Telly Savalas, and Phil Silvers as the three potential fathers. (I always wondered why story credit was not given to this hilarious film written by Melvin Frank, Dennis Norden, and Sheldon Keller).
I also must disclose that I enjoyed WBT’s stage version much better than the film adaptation starring Meryl Streep. While I in no way think Meryl Streep, one of the greatest actresses of our time, is “overrated,” I do not believe she was right for the role. Nor did I believe in the casting of her three possible suitors, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, and Stellan Skarsgård – they all are too perfect – who wouldn’t want any of the three to be their father? In Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell you had three character traits represented in the three possible fathers — handsome (Lawford), warm and loving (Savalas), and smart and geeky (Silvers).
WBT’s casting was spot-on. Michelle Dawson (whose prior performances at WBT, Pillow Talking thoroughly enjoyed) made a perfect Donna, the independent single mother who only wants the best for her child and does not want to see her commit the same mistakes. As Pillow Talking noted in other reviews of her past performances, she comprises a deadly duo of incredible singing voice and formidable acting chops. At the performance we saw, Brent Bateman (who normally plays the second suitor Bill Austin) understudy the role of Sam, the main suitor and Donna’s true love. Although I can see him as the outdoorsman journeyman in the role of Bill, he was an excellent complement to Michelle Dawson’s character. He brought a sensitivity and vulnerability to the role (much like Telly Savalas did in Buona Sera) that made you root for him as the “real” dad. Since Mr. Bateman took over the role of Sam, the nonperforming swing, Tanner James Rampton, played Bill. Although Mr. Rampton seemed a bit young for the role, he was thoroughly engaging and charming and his comedic timing was impeccable. The unsung heroes of any professional production are the nonperforming swings, and I am happy to have seen the talented Mr. Rampton performing on stage. It was a night of understudies, for the role of Rosie, one of Donna’s oldest friends, was played by Lilly Lewis, who normally is part of the Ensemble. As in the case of Messrs. Bateman and Rampton, Ms. Lewis gave an absolute engaging and thoroughly enjoyable performance.
The rest of the talented cast also shined. Kilty Reidy (Harry Bright), a veritable staple at WBT (we feel like we know him personally having seen him so many times) gave his customary wonderful performance with his unique blend of dramedy. Elise Kinnon who tripled as Tanya/Associate Director and Associate Choreographer did an incredible job in all three of her roles. Rounding out the principal cast, relative newcomers Mariah MacFarlane (Sophie Sheridan) and Nathan Cockroft (Sky) made the perfect couple around which the rest of the plot lines evolve. Finally, a musical like this could not succeed without an Ensemble that works seamlessly together – so special shout outs to Deshawn Bowens, Brian Dillon, Brett-Marco Glauser, Alicia Hemann, Bailey Purvis, Charity Van Tassel, Kyle White, and Connor Wince (Pepper/Ensemble), Matty Rickard (Eddie/Ensemble), Sydney Patrick (Ali/Ensemble) and last, but not least, Cameron Anika Hill (Lisa/Ensemble).
Mark Martino must get double kudos for his excellent direction and choreography. He makes wonderful use of WBT’s stage – especially for the encore which is positively show-stopping. Great musical direction by Eric Alsford and a brilliant set design by Steve Loftus were icing on this beautiful wedding cake.
Thank goodness no one thought of just doing a simple paternity test (which you can now do at home and send for results) – which would have resolved the whole crux of the play. But then we wouldn’t have this wonderful show to enjoy!