DEXTER, MI–Most of us have guilty pleasures. For some, it’s Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. For some, it is eating the whole pint of Ben &Jerry’s (who are those other three people the pint is supposed to serve?). And for some, the world over, it is the music of Abba.
Out of the popularity of Abba, the 70s pop band that hails from the land of Ikea and lingonberries (Sweden), Mamma Mia was born in the late 90s, or is that bjorn. The book of this musical is somewhat thin, but it doesn’t matter. It’s all in the service of allowing actors, dancers and singers to fly the Abba freak flag with 24 of the band’s songs.
Did I mention that Mamma Mia has become one of the most performed shows the world over? Every community and student theatre, and many a professional troupe, have signed on to do it in the last 25 years. It has grossed over $4 billion worldwide in that time, according to the latest figures available.
That’s both a good thing and a bad thing for the show. The bad thing is that many of us operating in theatre have seen at least one, if not more, horrendous community theatre productions of the show, with music performed by small-town community orchestras and amateur players. What is Swedish for “gag me.”?
But it’s important to remember that the show has far greater potential than what most small productions can offer. It has, after all, had successful runs at big-time theaters, including on Broadway and London’s West End, and was made into a film with no less than Meryl Streep playing the lead.
It is into this storm of ubiquity and mediocrity that The Encore Musical Theatre has ridden into the suburban world of guilty musical pleasures with a big, brassy, beautiful production of Mamma Mia that holds more than just a candle to the Broadway and Touring shows of the musical.
Indeed, with superb casting, a professional set design and orchestra that could hold their own in New York or Chicago, the Encore’s current production is the next best thing to seeing it on Broadway.
For the benefit of the half dozen or so people in America who have not yet seen Mamma Mia, here is the “plot.” Donna Sheridan (Sarah B. Stevens) is living on a Greek Island, running a hotel. Her 20-year old daughter, Sophie (Kate Cummings) is getting married. Sophie does not know her father is, but found her Mom’s diary, read back 21 years and found that she could have been sired by one of three men–Harry (Sebastian Gerstner), Bill (Keith Kalinowski) and Sam (David Moan)–that her Mamma was intimate with the summer of that year. She tracks them down, and invites all three to the island wedding in the hopes of discovering which one holds her Golden ticket. To the astonishment of Donna, they all turn up together like a bad Dickensian dream–ghosts of boyfriends past.
Rounding out the cast of principles needed for the story are two of Donna’s bffs–Rosie (Sonja Marquis) and Tanya (Anna Elizabeth) who prop up Donna with sassiness and comic relief before and after the will-the-real-father-please-stand-up drama unfolds.
Director Monica Kapoor and Encore Artistic Director Dan Cooney (who played Bill in the original Broadway run of the show) fortunately have the resources to do the show right, with a wonderful orchestra led by Tyler Driskill and a talented ensemble of young triple-threats (acting, singing and dancing) to pump the show full of energy and make you want to dig out your Abba 8-track cartridge, put it into your Oldsmobile Cutlass convertible and head for Lake Michigan with the top down.
The set, designed by Sarah Tanner and built by Tim Brayman and team, is a wonderful, multi-functional piece that provides the front of the hotel and gets spun around and turned inside out into a handful of other settings–and without tedious changes. It all seems to happen so fast, owing to the professional design and speed of the tech crew that the changes are hardly noticeable until they are done.
All in all, it is a first class production that stands in stark contrast to the vast majority of regional and student productions that have peppered the world. Ms. Stevens, a Wilde Award winner for Best Actress in a Musical (Sweeney Todd) is a delight to watch, with terrific comedic timing, but tempered with the ability to turn upset, worried and angsty on a dime, and with clarion vocals that elevate the often cheesy Abba lyrics. Her sidekicks are played by Ms. Elizabeth and Ms. Marquis with over-sexed comic energy without resorting to tiresome sameness that can often grip lesser actors, and are perfectly balanced and compliment one another rather than the two characters competing for the same laughs. Ms. Cummings is a fresh new face at The Encore and her presence on stage and in the character of Sophie stands up very solidly with Ms. Stevens super strong presence, and that is no mean feat.
The three amigos–Kalinowski, Moan and Gerstner–are familiar faces at The Encore, all Wilde Award winners and all having played many leads before. The three mesh nicely with the writing and leverage their chemistry to be collaborative in their business on stage rather than competitive. Mr. Kalinowski also has nice chemistry with Ms. Marquis in their scenes together.
The technical team that underpins this fun and lovely show: Chris Goosman and Meg Berg on sound; Sharon Larkey Urick on costumes; dance captain Jordyn Davis; projections by Will Myers; set painter Kate Vanhorn; lighting by Nikki Belenski; props by Anne Donevan.
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