Noah Golden, Associate CT Critic/Connecticut Critics Circle
I overuse food metaphors in my OnStage Blog reviews. Looking back, I’ve compared plays to pies, brownies, soul food and Italian cuisine. I guess food and theater take up an exorbitant portion of my brain. But, what the hell, here we go again. “Mamma Mia!” is like one of those drinks served in a giant Tiki mug with a paper umbrella on top. It’s vaguely exotic, extremely sweet and doesn’t give you a whole lot of sustenance. But there’s no mistaking the happiness it can bring on a hot summer day, enjoying the sugar rush as a few hours blissfully slip away.
“Mamma Mia!,” a show so exuberant it carries an exclamation point which I shall henceforth dispense with, is perhaps the piece that legitimized the jukebox musical as its own genre (sigh). It’s a juggernaut that has been delighting audiences around the world since 1999 and was one of the longest-running shows in West End and Broadway history. But it’s a musical that polarizes audiences. You either buy into the silly antics of its paper-thin plot and earworm ABBA score or are turned off by the sense that “Mamma Mia” is a generic, nostalgia-fueled cash-grab. I can understand both arguments but generally sway closer to the latter.
And yet, I enjoyed myself at Ivoryton’s colorful and spritely production, mostly due to a terrific cast and some very smart decisions by director/choreographer JR Bruno. The first clever choice was to make the (fictional) Greek island of Kalokairi more diverse in a way that felt organic rather than statement-making. Donna, Sophie, Ali and a number of the ensemble roles are played by actors of color, which brought a contemporary, new energy to the piece. They also put their own unique vocal spin on Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus’ songs – a bluesy run here, a gospel inflection there – which keeps things from sounding like an ABBA cover band.
Perhaps I should pause and explain the plot, even though I doubt any reader of a theater blog needs it. Bride-to-be Sophie (Stephanie Gomerez) returns to the utopian island where her single mom Donna (Laiona Michelle) has been running a small B&B since leaving a life of pop stardom behind. After finding her mom’s diary, Sophie concludes that her father has to be one of three men Donna, erm, dated nine months before her daughter’s birth. Of course, she decides to invite all three to her upcoming wedding and they all show up none-the-wiser. But is her dad Bill (Dane Agostinis), an Aussie travel writer with a fear of commitment? Or British Harry (Billy Clark Taylor), a rocker turned mild-mannered banker? Or Sam (Cooper Grodin), an American divorcee who still holds a flame for Donna? Also in town for the nuptials are Donna’s friends and ex-bandmates Tanya (Carly Callahan) and Rosie (Jessie Alagna). Since Donna and The Dynamos disbanded, Rosie fled the spotlight and made a quiet life for herself writing cookbooks. Tanya, on the other hand, has been chasing after millionaire husbands and plastic surgeons.
The book by Catherine Johnson twists and turns on a whim like an old Cole Porter musical, but nobody comes to “Mamma Mia” for the silly story or one-trait characters. It is merely a clothesline for peppy ABBA tunes, fun dance numbers and some enjoyable shtick. Luckily, Bruno knows this and largely stages his “Mamma Mia” with all the subtly of a bright cartoon, peppering each scene with lots of movement and fun, original gags. Only a few pages of dialogue connect popular tunes like “Dancing Queen,” “Take A Chance On Me,” “Thank You For The Music” and “Super Troopers.”
My favorite of Bruno’s touches was having younger versions of Donna, Bill, Harry and Sam on stage at various times, mirroring their grown-up counterparts. Not just did it create some nifty visual gags (buttoned-up businessman Harry’s younger self was a dead ringer for John Denver) but also helped ground the piece and give it some emotional resonance.
There’s not a weak spot in the spirited cast, but I must mention that Ana Yi Puig and Cameron Khalil Stokes, as Sophie’s bridesmaids Lisa and Ali, lit up the stage with boundless energy and sass. (So much so that I wish Stokes, a gender non-conforming artist who brought Alex Newell to mind, had more to do). Alagna had the audiences in stitches as Rosie while Callahan left comedic veneered bite-marks in Glenn Bassett’s seaside set, delivering an amusing “Does Your Mother Know.” All the possible dads are winsome, but it’s Grodin and his full baritone that left the biggest impression. It took me a bit longer to warm up to Michelle’s Donna, but only because her performance was more Leslie Jones than Carolee Carmello. I’m not sure she always found the right tone for Donna in act one (and her songs maybe could have been transposed up a half-step or two as well), but she settled in beautifully after the intermission. Her powerful and heartfelt “The Winner Takes It All” was pitch-perfect; a much-needed, emotionally honest palate cleanser amidst all the cheesy perkiness. Should I admit that I got goosebumps at a matinee of “Mamma Mia?” The real standout, among an excellent group, was Gomerez. She’s a beautiful, vivacious young performer with a crystalline voice and an incredibly likable stage presence. She’s one part pop star, one part Disney princess.
Since I’m getting to the end of my review, I should mention that not everything at “Mamma Mia” is as successful as the cast. Mics were a problem – they often popped and hissed, while in many numbers they weren’t calibrated corrected so the off-stage background singers overpowered the leads. There were a few baffling blocking decisions too. The Ivoryton stage is small and the cast is large, meaning that in group numbers, it was often hard to tell where the focus should be. During the Dynamos reunion song, the singers were largely obscured from my second-row seat due to a black-clad Yiayia placed right in front of the makeshift stage. If Bruno reduced the ensemble by a few people (or better yet removed the rowboat that took up almost all of stage right and was used for a total of two minutes), sightlines would have improved and the stage would feel less crowded. I’m obligated to say those things as a theater critic, although I’m pretty sure they didn’t bother the audience who was (quite literally) dancing in the aisles. Yes, “Mamma Mia” has a post-curtain call singalong.
It dawns on me all these paragraphs in that a show like “Mamma Mia” is critic-proof. You probably knew well before reading this whether you wanted to see it or not. But if you’re still undecided let me help: does your idea of a good time at the theater consist of enjoyable songs you know and love, a flimsy but fun plot, some inoffensive jokes and an unabashedly happy ending? If so, you’ll love “Mamma Mia,” especially this fresh, vibrant production. If you don’t, might I recommend horror film “Midsommar,” a wildly different kind of entertainment of Swedish origin with a very, very different interpretation of a dancing queen. I, surprisingly, enjoyed both for what they were. “Midsommar” is disturbing and artful and gives you a lot to think about. “Mamma Mia” is just pure escapist fun. But sometimes that particular cocktail is what hits the spot.
“Mamma Mia!” runs through July 28 at Ivoryton Playhouse in Ivoryton, CT. “Mamma Mia!” features a book by Catherine Johnson, score by Benny Andersson & Björn Ulvaeus with additional material by Stig Anderson. The production is directed and choreographed by J.R. Bruno with musical direction by David Madore, set design by Glenn Bassett, lighting design by Marcus Abbott and costume design by Elizabeth Saylor. The production stars Laiona Michelle (Donna), Jessie Alagna (Rosie), Carly Callahan (Tanya), Cooper Grodin (Sam), Dane Agostinis (Bill), Billy Clark Taylor (Harry), Stephanie Gomerez (Sophie), Jack Kay (Sky), Ana Yi Puig (Lisa), Cameron Khalil Stokes (Ali) and Evan Benjamin, Kelley Davies, Nico DiPrimio, Mark Gilchrist, Nicholas Gonzalez, Nigel Hall, Aliah James, Amanda Lupacchino, Melissa McLean, Carolina Santos Read, Nathan Russo & Audrey Wilson.