This production of Mamma Mia! is selling the show so hard you’d think it was the last used car on the lot.
Mamma Mia! is a ridiculous—but extremely amiable—jukebox musical. Catherine Johnson, who wrote the book, has strung a bunch of hit songs by ABBA into an unlikely story. A young woman named Sophie lives on a Greek island with her mom, an ex-pat American named Donna, who runs a taverna. Sophie’s getting married and she wants her father to walk her down the aisle, but she doesn’t know who her dad is, so she invites to her wedding the three most likely suspects: Harry, Bill, and Sam, who all had sex with Donna at about the time of Sophie’s conception. Sophie figures she’ll know her dad when she sees him. She doesn’t.
The ABBA songs never quite fit the storyline, but, if the musical is treated with a light hand—as a lark—nobody really cares. It’s just fun—like a bunch of kids putting on a show in their backyard, but with a large budget. Under Valerie Easton’s direction, however, the first act of this Arts Club production comes out punching. It’s loud. A lot of the acting is broad. And Easton and her players lard scenes with so much comic business that they groan under the weight.
Fortunately, things settle down in this mounting during Act 2, which contains fewer group numbers and more intimate, emotional songs.
It’s interesting to observe the actors as they negotiate the stylistic terrain. I would watch Warren Kimmel do anything and, playing the blowhard Australian—and potential Sophie dad, Bill—he reaffirms my faith here. From his first entrance, Kimmel is relaxed, which allows Bill to be genuinely funny. And, rather than superficially indicating what Bill is feeling, Kimmel creates a responsive internal life for the guy.
As Sam, Michael Torontow is perhaps too understated. And Jay Hindle’s Harry is, unfortunately, a cartoon of uptight Britishness.
To match the three mature men there are, of course, three mature women. Stephanie Roth (Donna) has a seductively husky voice and, when she sings her big ballad, “The Winner Takes It All”, she knocks it out of the park. Roth doesn’t show us the charisma that Bill, Sam, and Harry all fell for in Donna—Roth’s Donna feels more harried—and the actor plays along with the stylistic excesses of this mounting, but she delivers a fundamentally credible characterization.
As Donna’s sidekicks, Tanya and Rosie, Irene Karas Loeper and Cathy Wilmot get into a spot of trouble. Loeper plays it big—like drag-queen big—and she’s often very funny: when Tanya enters sipping wine from a bottle through a straw, for instance, and when she tries to pick up an air mattress from the floor—unsuccessfully because her heels are so high. But Loeper delivers a turn rather than a portrait: she’s having fun and sometimes we are too, but I never believed for a minute that Tanya was a real person.
Wilmot’s take on Rosie is sometimes sly. On opening night, when she teased out the iconic lyrics “If you change your mind”, for instance, she was so quiet and playful with them that the audience went wild. Wilmot gilds the comedic lily, though: her Rosie slips a dress she wore as a young woman over one of her thighs even as she makes a joke about wearing the dress as an eye patch.
Michelle Bardach, who plays the central character, Sophie, has a warm voice and she does a solid job of acting her way through her songs. I’d love to see her in a more relaxed mounting.
Stylistically, this Mamma Mia! is inconsistent—but it skews hard towards the excessive. Easton choreographed this show as well as directing it. There’s fun to be had in the dancing—in the iconic number in which all of the guys can-can while wearing swimming flippers, for instance. But so many of the routines are pitched at the same manic level that the overall effect feels more like a workout than a spontaneous celebration.
Under Ken Cormier’s direction, the six-piece band plays expertly, but the volume is relentless. And lighting designer Robert Sondergaard’s gives us the visual equivalent of noise: his lighting is intense and stylized, constantly shifting from one intense hue to another.
In David Roberts’s Greek fantasia of a set, big decorative flourishes emerge from the white plaster walls, which works fine. But he has indicated the Mediterranean with a tarp, which just looks like a tarp.
In her costuming, Alison Green offers a combination of the stylin’ (the Capri pants some of the guys wear), the camp (the pop band outfits the oldsters slip into for the extended finale), and the incomprehensible (the costumes chorus members don in a dream sequence.)
Overstatement is built into this production, but the show may settle down a bit as it rolls into its run. And I’ve got to say, even with my resistance to Act 1 of this mounting and even with the goofiness of the material, the fairytale ending of Mamma Mia! never fails to move me. Go figure.
MAMMA MIA! Music and lyrics by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, and some songs by Stig Andersson. Book by Catherine Johnson. Directed by Valerie Easton. An Arts Club production. At the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage on Wednesday, May 16. Continues until August 12.
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