Exuberant, impressive Mamma Mia! opens the year for Music Theater Works

By Karen Topham

The first thing you notice upon entering the theatre is Kristen Martino’s elegant, lovely set, designed to evoke a villa on a Grecian isle. Once the play begins, though, it’s hard to take your eyes off of the talented, diverse, body-positive (and fully vaccinated) cast that director Justin Brill has assembled for Music Theater Works’ exuberant and vibrant production of Mamma Mia! With the first plaintive notes of “I Have a Dream,” Heather Banks’ Sophie has already captured us: this play is going to be a pure and complete joy.

Mamma Mia!, one of the first jukebox musicals and still the best, is built upon the utterly infectious songs by the Swedish pop group ABBA (written by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus). Catherine Johnson’s book takes us into the self-built life of Sophie’s mother, Donna Sheridan (Alexis Armstrong), a free-spirited American running a villa on a tiny island off the coast of Greece, on the night before her daughter’s wedding. Though the two of them have lived Gilmore Girls-esque lives, Sophie immediately makes it clear that her “dream” is to discover the answer to a lifelong riddle Donna has refused to solve: the identity of her father. From her mother’s old diary, the twenty-year-old finds three possibilities…and has surreptitiously invited them all to her wedding, hoping finally to learn the truth. The song “Honey, Honey,” with which she tells her friends about her plan—and her mom’s impressive succession of brief, passionate affairs that led to her birth—immediately dials up the silliness and fun to eleven, and we’re off.

Banks and Armstrong are two impressive and likable performers (not to mention, like everyone here, powerful singers), and Brill and choreographer Shanna VanDerwerker (with some fine assistance from lighting designer Andrew H. Meyers and costume designer Rueben D. Echoles, both of whom clearly had some fun with this one) wisely keeps them in focus, though the two leads have plenty of talented company. Rosie (Veronic Garza) and Tanya (Casiena Raether), Donna’s longtime best friends (and partners in a girl-power pop group called Donna and the Dynamos), are here to share in the occasion. Both Raether and Garza, in addition to their Dynamos numbers, have songs that allow them to show off both their own impressive voices and their comic acting chops. This may be Donna and Sophie’s story, but there are other important characters here as well—Ahmad Simmons, for one, is compelling as Sophie’s fiancé—and writer Johnson is careful to allow them all room to develop as well, a difficult task in a sometimes nonstop musical pastiche of pop hits.

Not only the Dynamos, but the would-be fathers also get considerable focus. Architect Sam (Andrew Fortman), famous writer/sailer Bill (Dan Gold), and banker/former headbanging rocker Harry (North Rory Homewood) each have songs and scenes that differentiate them and flesh them out as characters. Sam’s quietly simmering emotions, Bill’s Aussie bravado, and Harry’s overall sweetness become their major characteristics. (It’s a bit difficult to picture Homewood—who, full disclosure, is my son—as a metalhead, but then again Colin Firth played the part in the movie, so there’s that.) There is some emotional baggage between Donna and each of these men, but most of it is aimed at Sam, Donna’s first island lover and the man she wanted to marry before learning that he was already engaged. (Brill makes hay out of the height difference between his actors by having Donna actually pull up a chair and stand on it so she can tower over him during one argument after she walks on with a hammer—in a clever bit—both of which illustrate Donna’s emotional confusion and volatility when she’s with him.

Brill’s ensemble, too, is outstanding. VanDerwerker’s energetic choreography—especially one scene in which the males dance in flippers and one in which she lets the effervescent Oliver Schilling (playing a villa employee named Pepper who is desperate for the attention of the much-older Tanya) go balletically wild in a solo dance)—builds on the well-known traditional Mamma Mia! patterns and makes them her own. It is a buoyant combination of the expected and the surprising, and it is executed brilliantly. And Linda Madonia’s nine-piece orchestra, with Tina Laughlin’s percussion driving the beat, shines throughout the show. Everything about this production is perfectly thought-out, right down to the sheets on Sophie’s bed that evoke the Greek flag. By the time we reach the play’s emotional peak with Armstrong’s powerful rendition of “The Winner Takes It All,” our immersion has been complete and absolute.

From that contemplative opening line to the last notes of the raucous encore megamix, this Mamma Mia! is a perfect “welcome back” for theatergoers who have spent the last eighteen months bemoaning the industry’s shutdown. But it only runs until August 29 (at the main stage of North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie), so buy your tickets quickly at Music Theater Works. But be warned: you could well find yourselves yearning for a super sparkly post-pandemic dress by the time it’s over.

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