(Update: WDPAC's Managing Director, Debra Beardsley, reached out to advise I had misrepresented the Director of this production (quite pleasantly I might add - the above sentence sounds harsh, but the anger is at myself for the oversight); I had referenced Matt Weber as show Director. Matt was the Technical Director handling light and sound (which were excellent opening night!); the show director was Doug Carey. I have edited the article to resolve the discrepancy. My apologies for the error. - CI)
Wayne Densch Performing Arts Center hasn't had a multi-week show run since 'Footloose' in September, and that's a shame; it's a fine theater, and the talent pool they draw from is tremendous. While my review of Footloose (Grade C) was underwhelming, it wasn't my first show there (although my first as a reviewer) and it had a lot to like. So hopes were high for 'Mamma Mia!'.
The notable highlights were talent, the costumes, and the set design. The lowlights I'll get to at the end, but only one was really within the director's control.
First, a side note: I'd never seen Mamma Mia!. I'd never listened to the soundtrack - one can just as easily grab 'ABBA's Greatest Hits', as this is a jukebox musical. As the production points out in the Trivia Pre-Show, Mamma Mia! isn't 'just' a jukebox - it's THE jukebox musical, with 5000+ performances on Broadway, ranking it as the 9th longest-running show, and the 1st for jukebox-style shows. Going into the show, I'd known about 4 ABBA songs, so I'm hardly a fan. My SO, however, while not being a BIG fan, knew all but one or two of the songs in the production, and so was able to provide a balancing perspective.
The story (per the blurb from WDPAC itself): Sophia Sheridan is 20 years old and lives with her mother Donna on an idyllic Greek island. She is about to be married and wishes for only one thing: that her father walk her down the aisle and give her away. The only problem is that she doesn't know who her father is and her mother won't discuss it with her. After she finds her mom's diary from the year she was born, she invites three men who could possibly be that man. Sophie is convinced that she will know her father as soon as she sees him but soon realizes that she hasn't a clue. Mayhem ensues when her mother is displeased and confused that the three are there, the men all think they're the father and (Sophia's) fiancé is getting fed up with the whole mess.
The costumes, in particular the period pieces, are well done. I can't claim a lot of late 60's fashion awareness, but the outfits were realistic, and the audience around me appeared to enjoy them as well.
The sets were, in my experience, the best I'd seen at WDPAC, period. They gave the effect of a Greek village, were changeable as needed for the story yet sturdy enough that closing a door didn't shake the wall, and were delightful overall. The integration of the Murphy bed into one of the movable walls was a fantastic technical touch.
The notable men: The three potential fathers are: Bill Austin, travel author (played by Steve Gelovich), Sam Carmichael, the architect (Gregory Williams), and Harry Bright, banker (Michael Lupo). All three characters are quite different, in different places in the their lives, and require a different touch to stand out properly from one another. Lupo works a British accent well for his character, as well as coming across as more urbane and polished. Gelovich's Bill is more rustic, a bit more fun while preferring wilderness to urban settings, and Williams' Sam as somewhere in-between, and a more emotional character than the other two. Williams has a fine singing voice and more than holds his own on a duet he sings with Donna. Gelovich's performance in the duet "Take a chance on me" brought to my face one of the few smiles I had from this show. SO MUCH MORE could be done with these three, and yet nothing is, in service to the story and the target demographic. More on this later.
The remaining 'name' male part is Sophia's fiancé Sky (Eric Raterman), and it's very rare that my SO and I agree so viscerally on a actor. Raterman's bio points out a lot of dance background (especially Ballet), as well as some previous WDPAC work in Footloose and Legally Blonde. I didn't read that until after the show, but a Ballet background made sense of so much that puzzled me about his performance. When onstage, he defaulted to ballet First Position when relaxed or when he didn't seem to know what to do; in a similar manner, every entrance or exit, every stop, every move across stage was using rebar instead a spine, head high and tilted back, feet gliding across the stage. I'm sure his Ballet work is impressive, but it was so very disturbing in a character who, poorly written as it is, exists only to be the love interest for Sophia and the only characterization provided is that he thinks getting married is a bad idea, but is going along with it for Sophia's sake. As a younger actor the default Ballet moves are bizarre, but a bit understandable; what I don't understand is the director (Doug Carey, who has a long list of shows under his belt as Director at WDPAC) not FIXING it in rehearsals. Maybe I missed some early reference that Sky does Ballet?! THAT would make sense - but nothing else about this portrayal of Sky does.
This is very much a show of, and for women (more on that thought later too). The main characters are Sophia (portrayed wonderfully by Sierra Sowers in her WDPAC debut), and Sophia's mother Donna (veteran Amy Parnell). Parnell's Donna is established as a former flower child, and Sowers' Sophia, seeking to rebel a bit, wants the societal 'norm' of a white wedding, as well as desperately wanting to know who her father is. Sowers has a great gift for acting, with a strong and pleasant singing voice. Whether she's aware of it or not, her performance onstage reflects the skill and talent of her stagemates: when a scene with her mother comes up (especially getting into her dress for the wedding) Sowers and Parnell hit all the notes (both acting and singing) and drove the audience to tears; when acting with Sky, Sowers seemed awkward and frustrated, When by herself, without anyone to reflect, she seemed tentative. In this production, those really weren't problems, but in a more subtle or nuanced role it might be. I look forward to her future endeavors.
Parnell's Donna is meant to be the lead, and she has a long list of such credits to her name; she pulls off Donna easily, and although I found one or two belt notes shrill, she was excellent to listen to and watch on stage. She emotes believably (and often - Donna goes through a number of emotional upheavals over the course of the musical), and truly seems to be enjoying herself.
Both mother and daughter have entourages as well - Donna's best friends are Rosie (played with gusto by Lauren Hutchinson) and Tanya (Brandi Sharpe), who together had formed an all-girls singing group when (roughly) Sophia's age. Sophia's friends Ali (Amanda Miller) and Lisa (Nicole Danielli) come on scene early, and then all but join the ensemble. It's a shame, as relegating these characters to one liners and 'bon mots' seems a waste. Miller and Danielli do well with what they're given, but could have been so much more, had the playwright (Catherine Johnson) had more interest in building up a younger female demographic.
And that's really the heart of my beef with this production - the writing itself and the apparent 'goal' of the show. I was several scenes into Act 2 and realized why I was increasingly unhappy with a decently performed show; I understood that *I* wasn't the target demographic. 'Mamma Mia!' is an unabashed, unashamed girl power production for women of the late 1960s (so probably 70-85 years old now - which also happens to be the most popular demographic, of my experience, in Community theater and presumably Broadway). A second demographic - maybe, at best - would be younger women who enjoy ABBA. Men in this show are the comic-relief, or an anchor around the necks of women who'd otherwise enjoy life; one exception is the character who comes out as gay and based on character reaction, in essence joins the girls team. And that's it - men are buffoons, a responsibility that no right-minded woman would want, or gay, it seems. And in "Mamma Mia!'s' world, there aren't other options.
Look, *all* media is currently seeing women, LGBTQ, people of all races, and the handicapable among us stating in no uncertain terms that they won't be pushed aside in society and on stage anymore - and there's no good reason they should be. However, you don't see a production of actors in wheelchairs while non-wheeled roles are shown as unintelligent, rude or morally broken; or a production of Latino actors where any non-Latinos are the subject of constant ridicule. It IS possible to raise up one group without denigrating another, but you'd not know it from watching 'Mamma Mia!' (ANY production of it - WDPAC can't be held at fault on this at all, it's just the script). The three potential fathers have shirked the responsibility of raising Sophia (not that they were told of her existence - Donna didn't want their 'help' anyway, and took even the chance for a decision out their hands. Donna's wild month 21 years ago when she slept with three different men only seems to have any sort of moral or ethical weight when it comes out inelegantly (for comedic effect) at the wedding - and it's quickly brushed over and put out of mind.
The morals and ethics of the 'Free Love' generation came from extremely conservative, even harsh, societal pressures of right and wrong, and those issues continue today. 'Mamma Mia!' doesn't try to suggest there's even an alternate thought process to consider; Donna simply did what felt right at the time and no one else is allowed an opinion otherwise. Needless to say, it's funhouse-mirror version of real life, wrapped in cotton-candy ABBA lyrics.
If you like ABBA, you'll like the show. If you're an 'eat the frosting and throw away the cupcake' kind of theater goer, there's a lot to be excited about with this production (excepting the version of Sky from opening night). If you dig deeper and aren't part of the first two groups - this isn't a show for you, anywhere, ever.
Grade: B- (PG to PG13: some double entendres that youngster's wouldn't get)