'Mamma Mia!' review: The Encore finds rhythm and style in vibrant production
Courtesy of Michele Anliker Photography
The Broadway summer season is in full effect at The Encore Musical Theatre Company in Dexter, Michigan with their vibrant production of “Mamma Mia!,” the smash Abba-inspired jukebox musical that never stops roaring. Featuring a wealth of Encore regulars and some new faces, “Mamma Mia!” comes alive in the freshly minted Mass Performance Space (complete with spacious and comfy new chairs that are a welcome addition from the previous ones).
It’s the perfect production for The Encore and the enlistment of Broadway veteren and “Mamma Mia!” alum Monica Kapoor to take over directing and choreography duties ensures the show's integrity never wavers. In other words, if you’ve ever called yourself an Abba fan (and let’s be honest, who hasn’t?!) The Encore Musical Theatre Company’s “Mamma Mia!” is one of the feel-good, get out of your seats and dance shows you’ll be raving about all summer.
Under the musical direction of Encore mainstay Tyler Driskill, the 20+ ensemble rise to the occasion of the show’s iconic catalog of Abba hits, which is no easy feat when you account for Kapoor’s intense, but lovely choreography. Songs in the roster like “Waterloo,” “Dancing Queen,” “Super Trouper” and countless more defy expectations. If I had to choose a favorite, it would probably be “Lay All Your Love On Me” because A) the tune is a certified rager and B) It bottles the show's infectious energy midway through act-one, keeping the musical’s momentum on pace.
Plus, it’s a blast watching the ensemble (decked out in scuba diving gear) whisk around the stage in rapid succession. Likewise for the presentation of “Money, Money, Money,” a song not nearly as beloved when compared to something like “The Winner Takes It All,” but still proves an unforgettable ballad, especially with Wilde Award winning actress Sarah B. Stevens’ powerhouse vocals leading the charge as Donna, an overworked hotel owner on the fictional Greek Island of Kalokairi.
Joining Stevens is Encore newcomer Kate Cummings, bringing an equally compelling vocal presence, playing Donna’s free-spirited daughter, Sophie who’s on the island to marry Sky (played with sporty enthusiasm by Tyler J. Messinger) but not before executing a secret plan to lure three men who, after sifting through her mother’s diary, might be the dad she’s been searching for all these years. Unbeknownst to Donna, Sophie signs her mother’s name on the invitations and sends them aboard where the three potential candidates agree to come, setting the stage for plenty of chaos, lots of singing, and heartfelt passion and romance.
The dynamics that exist within the framework of Catherne Johnson’s script have always been refreshing: Whether it’s Donna and her squad, aka the Dynamos, Tanya (Anna Elizabeth) and Rosie (Sonja Marquis) or Sophie’s posse, Lisa (Jordyn Davis) and Ali (Brooke Taylor), the juxtaposition of the different lifestyles and attitudes that span across generations is something “Mamma Mia!” doesn’t get enough credit for, and here, The Encore plays into those fundamentals, reminding us why this narratively constrained show can always find its footing. Doesn’t hurt Davis/Taylor and Elizabeth/Marquis add an extra layer of comedic ingenuity, making sure the tone stays light and breezy.
Not to mention everyone else has flawless chemistry, but it gets more interesting with the arrival of the three fatherly suitors: Sebastian Gerstner, David Moan, and Keith Kalinowski as Harry Bright, Sam Carmichael and Bill Austin. And each performer have their own flavor: Gerstner hams it up as a former English musician, now pencil-pushing banker struggling to find purpose in his life; Moan feels right at home playing the suave and charming loverboy who never stopped thinking about his old flame, Donna; and Kalinowski finds the sweet spot playing a journalist who might have more in common with Indiana Jones than he thinks. These three actors have been on The Encore stage many times and it's a delight watching them alongside one another.
Putting this level of talent on stage creates an incredible experience for the viewer, aided in no small part by scenic designer Sarah Tanner (who, along with Tim Brayman, creates a stunning, interchangeable set that wears many hats) and projection maestro Will Myers, all providing an ample layout for the demanding songs to breathe and pop from one-to-the-next. Legendary costumer Sharon Larkey Urick makes sure the entire ensemble is outfitted appropriately, which means plenty of comfy beach attire, scuba gear, and several other iconic “Mamma Mia!” looks. Aside from a hiccup or two, the sound design by Christopher Goosman, with assistance by Meg Berg, mixed well with Driskill’s commanding live pit. No easy task considering this is one of the biggest ensembles seen on The Encore stage in quite some time. Lighting by Nikki Belenski sizzles.
Is the script and music/lyrics by Benny Andersson, Björn Ulvaeus (with help by Stig Anderson) revolutionary musical theater? Not by a long shot, but “Mamma Mia!” doesn’t try to be anything other than an uplifting evening at the theater. Even if one could sense the energy and pacing (at times) was a little off during the Friday night performance (an occasional line flub, awkward transitions. etc), this entire production rises above those minor flaws to deliver the goods. After a long pandemic-infused hiatus, it’s nice to see The Encore back in full swing, firing on all cylinders with this massive, leave-it-all-on-the-stage trifecta.
The Encore Musical Theatre Company’s production of MAMMA MIA! continues through July 17th. Tickets can be found here.