Review: 'Mamma Mia' at the Grand Theatre

  • Joe Szekeres, Chief Toronto Critic

Well, my fourth trip to Greece on an opening night with Donna and Sophie Sheridan et al certainly made me realize how much I want to visit this country sometime. I wasn’t too sure how I would respond once again to the wafer thin plot involving the young engaged Sophie (Katie Kerr) who has read her mother, Donna’s (Rebecca Poff) diary and discovered that one of three men may be her father - Bill Austin (Stephen Guy-McGrath), Harry Bright (Cameron Macduffee) and Sam Carmichael (Michael Torontow). Sophie invites all three to her wedding at her mother’s taverna and hopes she will know immediately which of them is her father. Between this major plot are minor plots weaving in and out.

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I thought I might have been tired of hearing the sometimes syrupy, sometimes saccharine filled ABBA musical score but this opening night company at London’s Grand Theatre, coming from the Charlottetown Festival in PEI, brought their own distinct style that completely worked for me and left me with a smile on my face.

Even though I knew the plot, I was still swept away by the talented charm of the opening night production. Not only is it a well-oiled ensemble of talented company members at their peak condition, but also they looked to be enjoying themselves every single moment they appeared on stage. True, one could dig deep and make connections to the goddess Sophia if you wanted to understand the meaning of Sophie’s name.  Forget doing that.  This company was having fun and transferred it to the audience. They succeeded on all accounts and that’s all that matters.

Set Designer Cory Sincennes’ work in establishing Donna’s Greek taverna brought a hint of realism and naturalism in establishing locale. Set pieces were moved off and on fluidly by company members. Without spoiling the conclusion of this production for future audiences, I especially liked the final staged moment with Sophie and Sky (Aaron Hastelow) that left an indelible moment in my mind. Renee Brode incorporated sharp radiant colours and hues in lighting design to accentuate various times of day and evening while heightening intense and poignant moments.

Lisa Stevens’ choreography is electrifying and magnificently sharp and taut. Man, oh man, are there some top-notch dance moments in ‘Voulez-Vous’ ‘Money, Money, Money’ and ‘Gimme, Gimme, Gimme’ which made me hold my breath in anticipation wondering where or what these well-carved physiques would be doing next. Every inch of the Grand stage is used to its fullest for choreographed moments.

Craig Fair’s music direction was stellar. It was pure joy to be able to hear and to listen to many of the harmonies of the singers in several of the songs. What was also most enjoyable for me was the fact that I could hear every word in the lyrics. Thank you. When people pay good money to see a production, you want to ensure every single word can be heard.

Director Adam Brazier, who appeared in the original Toronto production as Sky and directed two productions, commented in his Director’s Note that it is the abundant joy that ‘Mamma Mia’ provides for audiences that continues to be enjoyed. Mr. Brazier has intimately paid attention to subtle details both in the setting and in character development that make this production seamlessly move from one scene to the next to create so much joy. I never felt the pacing of the production was slow whatsoever.

And his cast is terrific in their performances and triumphantly in their vocal work. Rebecca Poff as Donna and Katie Kerr as Sophie create a wonderful ‘pull and tug’ relationship as mother and daughter. They were completely believable, natural and quite poignant in their chemistry notably in ‘Slipping Through My Fingers” as Donna helps Sophie get ready for her wedding. Aaron Hastelow’s Sky is boyishly charming who truly created a memorable Sky for me. The way in which he gazed lovingly at Sophie each time Ms. Kerr appeared on stage was proof enough.

Jan Alexandra Smith and Nicola-Dawn Brook come dangerously close to stealing the limelight from the central characters. As Tanya and Rosie (Donna’s best friends from her days in the singing group) these vocally powerhouse ladies and their innate sense of comic timing kept this production moving along nicely. With especially nimble boy toy Pepper (Anthony Macpherson), Ms. Smith flirtatiously struts her stuff to prove she’s still got it in ‘Does Your Mother Know’.  Ms. Brook, meanwhile, with Stephen-Guy McGrath as Bill Austin weave their innate comic timing on the wedding chairs in ‘Take a Chance on Me’. By the end of the song, the audience applauded loudly as these two realize their attraction to each other.

Messrs. McGrath, MacDuffee and Torontow enhance the fun of this production in their roles of all of us trying to guess which of them is Sophie’s father. Like the ladies, the gentlemen do reveal some fine vocal work. Mr. MacDuffee’s version of ‘Our Last Summer’ with Donna is delightful to watch and to hear. Mr. Torontow nicely reveals a humane side in his work as Sam who has never forgotten the hurt that both he and Donna have caused each other so many years ago.

I had attended the opening night performance with a friend who also remarked just how strong the choreography truly works thanks to the ensemble who made it work. In other recent articles, I’ve been referring to the strength of many professional companies who work as a true ensemble of players to create and enhance the mood.  Just by looking at each of the company members during the choreography, I got the impression that each chorus member knew who they were in their own characterizations without ever upstaging any of the principal action. 

 

“Mamma Mia” plays until May 18 at London, Ontario’s Grand Theatre, 471 Richmond Street. For tickets, call the Box Office at 519-672-8800 or visit www.grandtheatre.com for further information.

Running Time: approximately two hours and thirty minutes with one intermission.

Director: Adam Brazier, Music Director: Craig Fair, Choreographer: Lisa Stevens, Set and Costumes: Cory Sincennes, Lighting Designer: Renee Brode, Sound Designer: Peter McBoyle, Stage Manager: Matthew MacInnis.

Picture of the company of ‘Mamma Mia’ by Dahlia Katz.