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Mamma Mia!
Music and Lyrics by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, and some songs with Stig Anderson
Book by Catherine Johnson
Directed by Dan Knechtges
Choreographed by Jessica Hartman
The Muny
July 21, 2016

Ann Harada, Julia Murney, Jenny Powers Photo: The Muny

Ann Harada, Julia Murney, Jenny Powers
Photo: The Muny

It’s a good week for the Muny to be staging Mamma Mia! The show, set on a Greek island, is a quintessential summer show, and I’m sure the cast members appreciate being able to dress for the warm weather. This is the first production of this popular show at the Muny, and with its excellent production values, great cast, fun if slightly silly story and lots and lots of ABBA music, it’s a rousing success.

Not being the biggest fan of the whole concept of the “jukebox musical”, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed Mamma Mia! the first time I saw it on stage. The movie is also a lot of fun, but I prefer the stage show and its whole sunny atmosphere, and the way it incorporates the songs of popular Swedish disco supergroup ABBA into the story. It’s not a particularly deep or profound show, but it’s a lot of fun, focusing on Donna Sheridan (Julia Murney)–the former lead singer of a disco trio–and her 20-year-old daughter, Sophie (Brittany Zeinstra). When the soon-to-be-married Sophie finds her mother’s diary and discovers that she has three possible fathers, she invites all three to the wedding without telling Donna, which causes all sorts of drama. The “dads” are three very different men–American architect Sam (Justin Guarini), who may still be in love with Donna; Australian adventurer and writer Bill (Mike McGowan), who enjoys his carefree single life; and slightly stuffy Englishman and former “headbanger” Harry (Ben Nordstrom). Donna’s friends and former bandmates Tanya (Jenny Powers) and Rosie (Ann Harada) also arrive for the wedding and get involved in the various shenanigans that ensue. It’s something of a goofy plot that doesn’t bear a lot of scrutiny if you examine it closely, but that doesn’t really matter in this case,  because it’s such a fun show that it’s easy to suspend disbelief for a little while.

The highlights of this show include the ABBA songs and the great cast. In terms of the music, all the well-known hits are here, including “Dancing Queen”, “Take a Chance On Me”, “The Winner Takes it All”, the title song and more. As for the performers, the cast is extremely well-chosen, led by the dynamic, sympathetic, big-voiced performance of Murney as Donna, and by the excellent Zeinstra as the persistent, optimistic Sophie. Powers and Harada provide excellent comic support as Tanya and Rosie, as well. Harada’s duet with McGowan on “Take a Chance On Me” is a hilarious moment. The men are well-cast, as well,  with Guarini in excellent voice as Sam, Nordstrom charming as Harry, and McGowan energetic and amiable as Bill. Jason Gotay as Sophie’s fiance Sky, and Alexander Aguilar and Wonza Johnson as his buddies Pepper and Eddie, also give good performances. The leads are backed by a strong ensemble, as well, which is great considering all the big, energetic production numbers there are in this show.

 The sunny atmosphere is reflected in the excellent unit set, designed by Tim Mackabee, that represents the Taverna that Donna operates. The Muny’s turntable is also put to good use. The costumes by Leon Dobkowski set the mood well, with colorful summer outfits,  swim suits, and  flashy disco outfits for Donna and the Dynamos. There’s also great use of video, designed by Greg Emetaz, that is incorporated well into the delivery of some of the songs, particularly Harry and Donna’s duet, “Our Last Summer”.  There’s also great lighting by Nathan W. Scheuer that helps to maintain the festive mood of the show.

I’m not sure how many times I can use the word “fun” in one review, but that’s really the best word to describe this show. Mamma Mia! isn’t a deep, thought-provoking type of show, although there are some truly poignant moments, such as the use of the song “Slipping Through My Fingers” as Donna is helping Sophie prepare for the wedding. Still, this show is about energy, style, ABBA music, and lots of fun, and this production at the Muny delivers all that, from the hopeful beginning to the memorable “mega-mix”style curtain call. The only small criticism I have is that sometimes the Muny’s enormous stage seems too big for this show in its more serious moments, although the music and energy eventually makes the show seem big enough. If you’re looking for a funny, summery, tuneful show with loads of hit songs, Mamma Mia! surely won’t disappoint.

Cast of Mamma Mia! Photo: The Muny

Cast of Mamma Mia!
Photo: The Muny

Mamma Mia! is being presented by the Muny in Forest Park until July 28, 2016.

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Mamma Mia!
Music and Lyrics by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, and some songs with Stig Anderson
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd
The Fox Theatre
November 6, 2015

Laura Michelle Hughes, Erin Fish, Sarah Smith Photo by Joan Marcus Mamma Mia! National Tour

Laura Michelle Hughes, Erin Fish, Sarah Smith
Photo by Joan Marcus
Mamma Mia! National Tour

Mamma Mia! is a jukebox musical done right. I am often highly skeptical of the whole concept of jukebox shows, especially when they’re basically just story-less productions made as an excuse to sing a bunch of popular songs. Still, there are shows in this genre that transcend that expectation, and this one does a good job of that. It’s not a highly substantive show, really, but it’s got an interesting story and it’s fun. The current non-equity tour, playing at the Fox, is a small but well put together production that captures the spirit and fun of the show well.

The story here isn’t particularly deep or profound, but it’s compelling, and the songs from Swedish pop group ABBA are well-incorporated into the plot. It’s a mother and daughter story, really. The daughter, 20 year old Sophie (Kyra Belle Johnson) is about to get married. She’s grown up on a Greek Island resort run by her mother, Donna (Erin Fish), who used to be in a glitzy singing group back in the day, and has raised Sophie on her own. After Sophie discovers via her mother’s diary that there are three men who could possibly be her father, she invites all three to the wedding without telling Donna. The men are all nice guys but couldn’t be more different–there’s English banker Harry (Andrew Tebo), writer and adventurer Bill (Ryan M. Hunt), and architect Sam (Chad W. Fornwalt). Needless to say, drama ensues when Donna sees them all again, but this is largely an upbeat show, as is fitting with the ABBA music that punctuates the story. Donna’s former bandmates Rose (Sarah Smith) and Tanya (Laura Michelle Hughes) are also on hand to contribute to the comedic aspects of the show.

This is something of a low-budget tour, but smaller is not necessarily a bad thing. The show is vibrant enough that the scaled-down production values work well, with a moveable set and lots of colorful projections. The production is designed by Mark Johnson, with atmospheric lighting by Howard Harrison. The staging is lively and effective, highlighting the more high-energy ABBA songs like “Dancing Queen” and “Take a Chance On Me”, and lending poignancy to the ballads like “Slipping Through My Fingers” and “The Winner Takes It All.”  There were a few issues with the sound in terms of being able to hear the singers over the music, but for the most part, the technical aspects of the show run smoothly.

The excellent cast is in good form here. Fish and Johnson, as Donna and Sophie, are in excellent voice and portray a convincing mother-daughter relationship. They’re engaging and funny when they need to be as well, working well with the three would-be dads, amiably played by Tebo, Hunt, and Fornwalt. Hughes and Smith also lend excellent comic support as the somewhat stuffy Tanya and more adventurous Rosie. Stephen Eckelmann, as Sophie’s fiance, Sky, also gives a fine performance and has good chemistry with Johnson. There’s also an energetic, enthusiastic ensemble to back up the leads, lending vibrancy to the show’s bigger production numbers.

I had never seen Mamma Mia! on stage before, having only seen the film. I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect from this tour, but I was rather pleasantly surprised. This is a well-cast, well staged production that captures the show’s sense of fun and musicality very well. If you like ABBA music especially, this is a worthwhile show to see.

Kyra Belle Johnson, Ryan M. Hunt, Andrew Tebo Photo by Joan Marcus Mamma Mia! National Tour

Kyra Belle Johnson, Ryan M. Hunt, Andrew Tebo
Photo by Joan Marcus
Mamma Mia! National Tour

The Mamma Mia! tour runs at the Fox Theatre until Sunday, November 7th, 2015

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