The cast of 'Mamma Mia' perform a song during a dress rehearsal. Photo courtesy of Erik Gable/Croswell Opera House.
There’s a reason The Croswell is one of the first community theatres granted the rights to produce “Mamma Mia!,” the smash hit musical that’s been seen by over 160 million people worldwide: it’s because they know how to handle a show of this caliber.
No joke: throwing “Mamma Mia!” on your marquee and calling it 'good' doesn’t get the job done, you need the cast, the design, an elaborate crew and, most importantly, you need the music.
You can bet everyone in attendance for the sold-out opening last Friday night had their expectations in check, and they should...it’s ABBA. And something tells me those patrons surely left the theater satisfied; this show rocks in more ways than one.
A jukebox musical in every sense, from the opening sequence music director Dave Rains (does this man ever sleep?) and his usual polished team of seasoned musicians immediately transports us to the fictional Greek island of Kalokairi, where 20-year-old Sophie (played with the utmost charm by Lindsey Powers) is preparing to marry her fiancée, Sky (Steven Kiss - always reliable). And like any wishful bride, wants her father to give her away, but the kicker is: she doesn’t know who he is. After snooping around and reading entries in her mother's diary, she narrows the pool down to three potential candidates and sends off the invitations, signing her mother's name unknowingly.
And so begins “Mamma Mia!” which, for the most part, is smooth sailing all the way around. The vibrant scenic design by Bartley H. Bauer gives way for this exceptionally youthful cast to fuel the production for a solid two and half hours of entertainment. In many ways, this island is like an exotic playground, which is even more enticing when Sophie's mother Donna (Lena Spiegel) leaps on the stage.
Donna, who at one time was considered the life and soul of the party, has somewhat fizzled out. She owns and operates a mainstay hotel, constantly doing repairs, and is donning the classic denim overall look complete with paint brush in hand when she first takes the stage. Spiegel's Donna is fierce, taking the memorable role that’s so demanding both physically and vocally, and captures her dynamic disco-diva and full-time mom persona with ease and charm.
As guests slowly start to arrive for her daughter's wedding - among them her old BFF’s Tanya (Lucy Hagedorn) and Rosie (Chelsie Cree) and enough can’t be said about the trios chemistry - the pressure begins to wane. So you can imagine her surprise when three familiar faces from her past arrive in her territory.
Those gentlemen, and potential fatherly candidates, include: persnickety, rich-laden English banker Harry (Stephen Kiersey - being his normal eccentric self in all the best ways); then you’ve got Bill (Karl Kasischke - last seen in “Meet Me In St. Louis” and is exceptional again here) an international journalist giving off a quirky bit of Indiana Jones vibes; and finally, Sam (D. Ward Ensign sporting a delicate balance of sweet and funny) the seemingly normal one of the bunch and a charismatic architect. None of these potential dads have anything in common, and with all three playing their roles so straight, they create a perfect trio to enhance the scripts witty and fast paced comedy.
While the plot is full to the brim of romantic quarrels and comedy, you’ll be happy to know that ABBA's iconic catalogue of karaoke hits such as “Dancing Queen,” “Winner Takes It All,” and “Waterloo” all take to the stage in one tightly choreographed sequence after another. In particular, “Money, Money, Money” might be the best song I’ve ever seen Croswell regular Sarah Nowak choreograph. She really outdoes herself with a few of these sequences.
The dance numbers often make up for the scripts shortcomings and relatively uneven pacing. Sometimes, it feels like you don’t even get time to breathe or take in certain characters (the musical’s sole dramatic scene, which involves Sophie and Sky, feels so out-of-place, because it’s so abrupt and then never discussed again). And before we realize what’s happened, the book rushes us along to another scene, not allowing proper time to let relationships build or scenes land. This isn’t the fault of the cast or direction by Jen Letherer, who create a memorable and exciting experience despite the scripts shortcomings, but perhaps that of script writer Catherine Johnson whose compact text really helped beef up the songs (and they’re great songs!), but seems to have left several of the non-musical interludes for scraps.
But Letherer is smart to fill her scenes with a good-looking ensemble (who play everything from hotel workers to scuba divers), and the glossy, easy on the eyes, costume design by Pam Krage heightens every scene. Special attention taken for the memorable Donna and the Dynamos outfits during their scene stealing tunes “Super Trouper” and “Voulez Vous,” the latter of the two manages to use every cast member - and inch of the stage - in well synchronized fashion.
Those scenes, like many others, are proof that when a cast and crew are all on the same page, magic can indeed happen. Even if you find yourself a bit drained by the rush of the show - (the first act flies by only to have the second slug in parts) - it’s a welcome evening or afternoon of theatre. Just be forewarned you’ll be toe-tapping and humming these songs long after those final bows.
Given the popularity of such a show, I recommend snagging tickets while you can, as not to miss out on the sure-to-be buzzy conversation.