THEATER REVIEW: “Mamma Mia!” @ Great Lakes Theater by Laura Kennelly

Photos by Roger Mastroianni

Through Sun 11/11

Mamma Mia!, the Great Lakes Theater joy fest now at the Hanna, deserves the exclamation mark already in the title. (Maybe it needs two!!) This utterly delightful escape, directed by Victoria Bussert, strings together dancing pop songs by (and inspired by) ABBA, a 1970s-era Swedish pop group. The musical, which opened in London in 1999, features music and lyrics by Benny Andersson, Björn Ulvaeus, and Stig Anderson, with a book by Catherine Johnson as inspired by Judy Cramer.

So what’s it about? For anyone who has missed previous film or stage versions, here’s a speed summary. It takes place on an imaginary Greek island. On the eve of her wedding to Sky (Jake Slater), young Sophie Sheridan (Kailey Boyle) reveals to her bridesmaids that she’s invited three surprise guests to the wedding, one of whom must be her father. Of course, she’s not told her mother about this or that she sneaked a peek at  her single mother’s long-hidden diary.

It’s a thin plot, but who cares? (And with cheap DNA analysis now possible on Ancestry.com and other sites, today she’d find an easy way to know.) But Boyle as Sophie is so enchanting, with her captivating voice and manner, that silly considerations like plot logic fly out the window. When she sings “I Have a Dream,” we do too.

Action begins when Sophie greets her friends Ali (Shayla Brielle G.), and Lisa (Amy Keum). The three giggle and bounce around singing “Honey, Honey” as they discuss who Sophie’s dad might be. The candidates for Papa — Harry Bright (Eric Damon Smith) Bill Austin (Alex Syiek), Sam Carmichael (Nick Steen) — are all great guys who, luckily, as we find out, can sing and dance with the best of them.

Sophie’s mother, Donna Sheridan (Jillian Kates), bursts onto the scene, garbed in work clothes, and immediately shows she’s not a romantic person anymore, if she ever was one. She lives only to raise Sophie and to make the hotel/taverna that she helped build succeed. It’s of course hard to believe that anyone as beautiful and passionate as Kates’ Donna hasn’t long ago found love again but we try. Kate, always vocally compelling, brings bounce (“Money, Money, Money”), wistfulness (“The Winner Takes It All”), and spirit (“Mamma Mia!”) to win us over.

Soon Tanya and Rosie, Donna’s best friends, come for the wedding; they bring out her girlie side and her memories of when they formed a vocal trio back in the 1970s. As wealthy Tanya, Jodi Dominick strikes just the right touch as a sassy, hedonistic woman, ready for a new man, especially as she sings “Does Your Mother Know” to the smitten young bartender Pepper (handsomely fit Warren Egypt Franklin) and other staff who dance, do cartwheels, and cavort across the set.

As Donna’s other friend, shy — but persistent writer Rosie — Laura Welsh Berg (along with Alex Syiek as Bill Austin) shows why “Take a Chance on Me” might be an anthem for single gals ready to settle down.  Syiek’s Aussie persona suggests an upscale, but rugged outdoorsy Crocodile Dundee (who can sing and dance with the best).

Everything happens in front of three Greek Island-style buildings painted in bright turquoise and tangerine hues — a perfect backdrop for an island paradise. Scenic designer Jeff Herrmann also allows generous room for dancing, beach bathing and festivals. Choreographer Jaclyn Miller shows off the cast’s considerable dancing skills. Costumes by Tracy Christensen complete the picture with outfits that delineate the characters (and, happily, emphasize just how rigorously some pursue fitness).

Others in the fine ensemble cast include Matt Koenig, Kelsey Brown, Katherine DeBoer, Tre Frazier, Courtney Hausman, David Holbert, Andrew May and Daniel Millhouse.

Matthew Webb, conductor/keyboardist, along with seven others, makes a big bouncy sound under the stage with keyboards, guitars, bass and drums. On preview night it was sometimes hard to hear all of Kates’ lower register notes, but that’s an easy technical glitch to fix.

BOTTOM LINE: We were warned not to leave after the final bows. Good thing. There’s eight more minutes (give or take a few) of even snazzier costumes, big numbers and dances. If you have to stand up and move, that’s all right too. Even if you’ve never heard of ABBA (is that possible?) you’ll likely leave with a smile and a lighter heart.

[Written by Laura Kennelly]

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