Tuesday, July 9, 2019

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 176, A Review: "Mamma Mia!" (Ivoryton Playhouse)

By James V. Ruocco

"Dancing Queen."
"Honey, Honey"
"The Name of the Game"
"Take a Chance On Me."
"Super Trouper."

Some shows are meant to be performed over and over and "Mamma Mia!" the hit London/Broadway musical that's been bookmarked into the catalog of musical theater "success" stories for a couple of decades now, shows absolutely no sign of slowing down or getting older.

It is one of those family-friendly shows that demonstrates the enduring power of romantic musicals that come smartly packaged with catchy scores, fluid staging, cute characters, lively choreography, giddy one liners and happy endings that actors and audiences simply cannot get enough of.

You know the story.
You know the songs.
You know the outcome.

It's like coming home again to a big family celebration steeped in songs, sentiment, excitement, dancing and a very tasty, vanilla-frosted birthday or wedding cake. What's not to like?

Ivoryton Playhouse's cheery, flavorful incarnation of the ever-popular "Mamma Mia!" furthers that notion in a very good way.


One's deep love for the music of ABBA and one's appreciation for a romantic musical with a party atmosphere that rings loud and proud without the rainbow-tinged colors of gay pride is all that matters here. That, plus a subtly clever-and-cute concept, the inherent beauty of the Greek Islands and a surprise or two.

The story of "Mamma Mia! " as penned by Catherine Johnson, is sweet, sugary and simplistic. As the musical opens (the action is set somewhere on an island in Greece), 21-year-old Sophie Sheridan finds her mother Donna's diary from 1979 and decides to contact the three guys mentioned in explicit, romantic detail - Sam, Harry and Bill - one of whom could very well be her father - and invite them to her upcoming wedding to Sky with the hopes of one of them (or possibly, all three) walking her down the aisle. Donna's two best friends - Tanya and Rosie - are also en route to the nuptials, but no one has any idea of what Sophie has done, not even her mother. Well, not at first, anyway. And therein, likes the musical's sugar-coated heartbeat.

At Ivoryton, "Mamma Mia!" is being staged by JR Bruno whose directorial credits include "Fun Home," "A Chorus Line," "Les Miserables," "Sweet Charity," "Man of LaMancha" and "Sunday in the Park With George." Here, he brings tremendous wit, savvy and knowledge to this production along with a smart sense of stagecraft which kicks it into orbit and keeps it spinning and twirling most engagingly. But this is a very different "Mamma Mia!" Very different, indeed.
To give this production additional shading and dimension, he time travels back to the past - namely 1979 - and provides flashbacks (when necessary) involving the main characters of Donna, Sam, Bill, Harry, Tanya and Rosie at a much younger age. This concept, which takes it cue, in part, from the 2018 motion picture "Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again," works especially well as back story and gives this production a nostalgic glimmer indicative of the one represented in Stephen Sondheim's "Follies," where two sets of the same characters were on stage at the same time, but in two very different time periods.

What's particularly nice about this oft-produced musical is that Bruno's creative vision never falters. It remains light, fresh and credible throughout combined with a certain sense of purpose and pop that builds from scene to scene and act to act. Nothing is out of place. Nothing is taken for granted. Nothing is thrown in, exaggerated or over the top. This tender, bracing portrait of Mediterranean
life is seriously good fun and given attentive, intuitive expression by Bruno. It also comes gift wrapped with a decidedly different ending that thrusts Sophie and Sky upfront into the big "Mamma Mia!" finale (a great move, by the way) and adds some wonderfully staged mother-daughter moments (another plus) that are not only endearing and tearful, but bring closure to the story at its nostalgic-tinged memories of characters played out in two very different time frames.

Based on the bright, up-tempo, flavorful songs of ABBA, composed by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus (Stig Andersson is also credited in the footnotes for certain songs used in the two-act musical), "Mamma Mia!" includes 26 musical numbers culled from the pop-tinged, chart-busting  ABBA songbook. They are "Prologue/I Have a Dream," "Honey, Honey," "Money, Money, Money," "Thank You For the Music," "Mamma Mia!" "Chiquitita," "Dancing Queen," "Lay All Your Love On Me," "Super Trouper," "Gimme, Gimme, Gimme (A Man After Midnight)," "Voulez Vous," "Under Attack," "One of Us," "S.O.S.," "Does Your Mother Know?" "Knowing Me, Knowing You," "Our Last Summer," "Slipping Through My Fingers," "The Winner Takes It All," "Take a Chance On Me," "I Do, I Do, I Do," "I Have a Dream," "Mamma Mia! (Encore)," "Dancing Queen (Encore)" and "Waterloo."
The songs themselves, positioned nicely into Catherine Johnson's romantic story with nary a hiccup or flutter, are serviceable to the plot, it's progression and the various characters who sing them. Every single one of them is well worthy of the applause they initiate as they heighten the show's sweet-natured, musical momentum.

With musical director David John Madore at the helm, "Mamma Mia!" achieves a nostalgic slickness that unfolds with plenty of snap, plenty of heart, plenty of versatility, plenty of soul and plenty of glitter ball fantasia. Completely akin to the celebrated song style that is ABBA - pop rock, light ballads, folksy glam, disco-chic rocking, novelty kitsch - Madore dutifully respects and understands the unstoppable, invincibly commercial romantic bliss that is ABBA, the group's lathered expressionism, the craftiness of the lyrics, the surface beauty and intimacy of the songs themselves and their defined, easy-listening musicality. That, in a musical of this nature, goes a very long way.

Working alongside a small, but very talented group of musicians (Dan Hartington, Paul Feyer, David Uhl, Marty Wirt),  Madore brings a certain freshness and gusto to the oft-played "Mamma Mia!" score, matched by an energetic beat and nuanced verve that never falters for a millisecond. Every member of the band is completely sync with ABBA's musical achievements - "Mamma Mia!" Dancing Queen," "Voulez Vous," "Take a Chance On Me," "Super Trouper" - throughout the two-act musical, marvelously capturing the feeling, the style, the confidence, the color and the sparkle evident in the vibrant, pop-tinged, musical score. At times, the orchestral sound is so polished and uninhibited, that sonic brilliance elicited by Madore and company allows "Mamma Mia" to break ground from an entirely new, unique perspective.

Choreography, when done right, is also key to the "Mamma Mia!" experience. Doubling as choreographer, JR Bruno takes hold of the many musical numbers than require specialized dance movement and puts his own personal twist on every single one of them. Things are sugar-charged high, gum-drop gooey and trademark athletic depending on the music at hand. They are also well rehearsed, flashy and celebratory. However, given the vastness of Glenn Bassett's handsome, atmospheric set, some of the dance numbers have been shortened or modified to fit the dance space on the Ivoryton stage, which, in some cases, leaves you wanting more. Regardless, Bruno puts his best foot forward moving his cast through some wildly uninhibited choreography that's playful, flashy, eye-popping, flashy and sexy. The cast has so much fun, it's impossible not to be swept up in the on-stage dance mania of it all.

As Donna Sheridan, the mother of Sophie and the former lead singer of the girl group "Donna and the Dynamos," Laiona Michelle offers a convincing, personable character portrait rich in passion, optimism, spunk, determination and boldness. Vocally, she is sensational, hitting all the right notes musically and emotionally with a clear, vibrant, bluesy conviction reminiscent of Gladys Knight, Nina Simone, Etta James and Jennifer Hudson. Making her Ivoryton Playhouse debut, Stephanie Gomerez, as Sophie, has the voice of an angel and the radiance and star power of someone who is bound for Broadway the minute "Mamma Mia!" plays it final performance. Her singing voice is so beautiful, you want to hit "Replay" every time she finishes a song. Elsewhere, her dialogue delivery and interaction with the "Mamma Mia!" cast is charming, sensitive, playful and fraught with real emotion.

The very likeable Jessie Alagna brings the right energy, pulse and comic zing to the character of Rosie. Near the end of Act II,  she turns "Take a Chance On Me," her wildly crazed, hilariously staged comic duet with Bill into a genuine showstopper. Carly Callahan's Tanya is vain, showy and sex-starved while Ana Yi Puig's Lisa is nicely sweet in typical best friend fashion. Gender Non-Conforming artist Cameron Khalil Stokes, is cast as Ali, a role that is played somewhat differently than what was envisioned by the playwright and here, reminds one of "Glee's" flamboyant visionary Unique Adams. The alluring Aliah James makes a strong impression via flashbacks as the young Donna Sheridan and brings a required resonance to the piece.

Cooper Grodin's Sam is sexy, charismatic, responsible and caring. It's a standout performance that includes two powerful vocals - "Knowing Me, Knowing You" and the reflective "SOS," the latter performed with the full-voiced Laiona Michelle. As Bill, Dane Agostinis offers a comedic performance with trademark snap and vigor. Boyish Jack Kay is well cast as Sophie's eager, young fiancee. He brings a convincing level of romantic chemistry to his pairing with Gomerez, his attractive co-star. Billy Clark Taylor, as Harry, plays his cheeky Englishman role with full-on wit, over-inflated emotion and well-timed stride. In the dual roles of Yaiyai and the Adult Woman, Melissa McLean looks as if she was yanked from her Santorini homestead and flown into CT from the Greek Islands after appearing in the 2008 film version of "Mamma Mia!" She's the real deal every step of the way. Her look, her moves, her expressions and her reactions are absolutely amazing. Kudos to Bruno for casting her in this production.

"Mamma Mia!" is the perfect summertime refreshment. It is ridiculously enjoyable fun with an unstoppable party vibe. It's confetti, party time, vintage champagne, wedding reception cake and happy ending all rolled up into one. It pulls out all those  rainbow-flavored ABBA classics with obvious affection, sugar-coated sparkle, giddy love and forgivable heartbreak. It puts ABBA back on the brain again for weeks on end. It is performed with dazzling exhilaration by a very talented, attentive cast. The dancing is perfectly in sync with the feel-good music of the ABBA songbook. The story is cute, sunny and cheery, but never overbearing. And the performances of the two female leads - Stephanie Gomerez and Laiona Michelle - work their magic in such intoxicating ways, the memory of their invigorating take on the characters of Sophie and Donna lingers long after the production ends. It's a sugar high like no other and one that is not easily forgotten.

Photos of "Mamma Mia!" courtesy of Jonathan Steele

"Mamma Mia!" is being staged at Ivoryton Playhouse ( 103 Main St., Ivoryton, CT), now through July 28.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 767-7318
website: ivorytonplayhouse.org.

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