Mamma Mia! is playing at the 5th Avenue Theatre through February 25, 2018. Get tickets and more info here.
It is virtually impossible to be in a bad mood or to even sit still when the music of ABBA is played. The music is infectious, pure bubblegum and most of the songs from the Swedish singing group have become synonymous with having fun. Now… Take the best of these fantastic songs, build a storyline to connect them, and you have the smash hit musical, Mamma Mia!, currently playing at the 5th Avenue Theatre.
The story takes place on a small, undisclosed Greek Island. Donna Sheridan was once the definition of a free spirit. She was the lead of a girl group trio, a self-sufficient independent woman, and is now a single mother struggling to get by as the owner of the island’s guesthouse. Sophie, Donna’s 21-year old daughter, is getting married. After reading her mother’s diary, Sophie secretly sends out invitations to the three men suspected of being her father under the ruse that Donna wants a reunion. All three decide to show up. Sophie and her two best friends connive to find out who her real father is all the while not letting Donna (or Donna’s two best friends), Sky (Sophie’s fiancé) or the three men themselves know the truth about why they are there.
Mamma Mia! is pure confection to be enjoyed; the music is bubblegum, the story is saccharine and the cast is mostly eye candy. Everyone in the Ensemble does a great job with the roles they are given. The dancing is perfectly in synch, and they move together like a professional troupe should. The two love birds Sophie (Eliza Palasz) and Sky (Jordan Iosua Taylor) seem very well suited for each other. Both have good voices, hold a stage presence and perform well.
The three unsuspecting male leads are Sam Carmichael (Paolo Montalban), Harry Bright (Cobey Mandarino) and Bill Austin (Matt Wolfe). All three were lovers of Donna, and have returned to the island to see her once again, not knowing of their potential paternity. Mr. Montalban (Sam) has a strong, easily charming voice. He possesses a smooth sound that glides out into the audience. Mr. Mandarino (Harry) gives the role certain staunchness to his character. His voice is much more subtle giving the character a graceful, natural appearance on stage. Mr. Wolfe (Bill) looks like he is having the time of his life playing this role. His character is charming, a few beats off center, and he plays it in a lovable, goofy way that immediately relates with the audience. It is difficult not to keep an eye on him, during the group scenes, to observe the character’s subtle and awkwardly humorous reactions to the events going on around him.
The two women rounding out Donna’s singing trio in the “Dynamos” are Tanya (Lisa Estridge), and Rosie (Sarah Rudinoff). Both seem perfectly cast, are excellent in their roles, exude a strong stage presence, are a pure joy to watch interacting among themselves and the other cast members. Ms. Estridge (Tanya) has a beautiful voice, a sassy stage presence and a firm hand on her character as a divorcée that has grown wealthy from several relationships. Ms. Rudinoff (Rosie) is always a pleasure to watch no matter what she does. She brings her natural comic abilities to her role, with a strong voice and wonderful timing. It’s something that appears to come naturally to her and the audience responds to how much she is enjoying her work. The character is set to play opposite “Bill” and the two of them (Ms. Rudinoff and Mr. Wolfe) match up like two kids in a sandbox; obviously enjoying riffing off one another, and having a wonderful time at play.
Kendra Kassebaum is Donna Sheridan. Ms. Kassebaum takes to the role as if it were created for her. She has a strong singing voice that is sweet to hear, and powerful enough to reach the back seats of the theatre. Her voice possesses a natural element that easily displays to the audience the tough side of Donna’s character while allowing human vulnerability and self-doubt bringing the character to three-dimensional life. Whether it’s simple facial expressions, or physical reactions to the other characters, Ms. Kassebaum embraces the role of the independent woman with grace, charm and an immense talent.
This production of Mamma Mia! is directed by Bill Berry (with Associate Director Billie Wildrick) and is being toted as newly designed and envisioned. The songs and the storyline all remain in tact allowing the show to be the well-loved production it has become over the years. So what is new? The set design has been slightly changed by the Scenic Designer, Jason Sherwood. Mr. Sherwood has minimized the original simple set, bringing a new design to the stage. A beautiful cloth backdrop is used to show the glistening Greek waters surrounding the island. A few set props are displayed to give the feeling of an island terrace or a simple resort bedroom. The stage simplicity allows the talent of the actors to shine on stage without competing for attention. The choreography is by Bob Richard and is different from the National Touring Company that has come through in previous years. Mr. Richard (with Associate Choreographer Trina Mills) delivers great dancing allowing the cast to enjoy ABBA’s music to the fullest. Most of the changes won’t be noted by anyone other than the die-hard Mamma Mia! fans that have seen, studied and fully embraced past productions of the show, and this “new” production is highly satisfying, enjoyable, and most of all fun.
* Don’t rush out to beat the crowds leaving the theatre. Stay after the bows as the full cast performs some of ABBA’s greatest hits as Encores.
Mamma Mia! is written by Catherine Johnson with music and lyrics by (former ABBA members) Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus; some of the songs were written with Stig Anderson. Originally opening in London in 1999, Mamma Mia! transferred to Broadway in 2001, where it ran for over 5700 performances before closing almost 14 years later. Mamma Mia! was nominated for seven Tony Awards (including Best Musical) and is on the list as one of the Top Ten Longest Running Broadway Musicals.