You Won’t Regret It!
BY SANDY STAGGS
The much-anticipated regional premiere at Centre Stage, “MAMMA MIA!” is ecstatic escapism at its best and backed by a solid gold soundtrack of some two dozen smash electro-pop ditties from the Swedish sensation known as ABBA.
Besides a stellar cast of seasoned Greenville performers and a sizzling-in-virgin-olive-oil ensemble of scantily-clad college students as the Greek Chorus, “MAMMA MIA!” is fantasia of Frankie and Annette beach romance, “Father of the Bride” farce and “Three Man and a Grown Daughter” cuddliness.
is executed with a swift and playful hand by none other than Greenville’s theatrical version of mid-career John Waters, John Fagan, whose recent successes include the pinkalicious musical “Legally Blonde” at Spartanburg Little Theatre, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in Falls Park, and last year’s Mark Twain gender-bender farce “Is He Dead?” on this very stage.
Fagan gently infuses a playful sunny mood from the first dreamy ballad “I Have A Dream” sung by Kaylee Willis alone under the stars to the adorable musical numbers (bouncy choreography by the great Michael Cherry) and well-heeled machinations and scene transitions that flow ever so lightly and effortlessly on the quaintest Greek two-story villa replete with stucco, clay tile roof, stone walls, a luscious garden. Oh, and a turntable stage takes us inside the villa.
To further immerse the audience in this paradise island setting, the theatre exits are all encased in trellises draped in winding vines of bougainvillea and a set backed by a painted village scape.
After experiencing the flashy and pleasing touring spectacle known as “MAMMA MIA!” three times prior (not to mention constantly correcting the funky capitalization in my reviews), I have always held that the plot was insipid and a trite exercise in stringing together the tracks of “ABBA Gold” greatest hits (written by the male members of the band Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus) to form a half-cohesive, if strained, storyline. Then the movie came along. And now a sequel with Cher too? Trust me, all of the greats from the ABBA songbook have been mined.
But oddly enough, this outstanding cast makes the plot almost palatable.
For the few latecomers to the ABBA party, a 20-year-olf illegitimate but gorgeous daughter Sophie (the impeccable and dynamite vocalist Willis who showed off her rock appeal in “Jukebox Heroes”), who was born on a fictional island of Kalokairi, raids her mother’s diary to discover her Mom, Donna was, for a brief period in the 1970s, a slut.
Sophie clandestinely invites three baby daddy candidates to her wedding and they all show up and, of course, sing an acoustic and acapella adaptation of “Thank You for the Music,” which, is ironic because it was perceived as a “farewell” song for the group.
John Brigham in a pristinely-coiffed gray wave is the dashing architect Sam, and delivers the most suave baritone stylings of the night; a very loosened-up Bruce Meahl is Bill, the Australian writer and rugged adventurer; and the always-steadfast Rick Connor is Harry, the English banker and former musician and metal head.
Donna, taken on by Centre Stage’s Executive & Artistic Director Glenda ManWaring in a jubilant return to the stage after helming most of the company’s grandest sell-out musicals of late, is less than thrilled about Sophie’s nuptials at such young age.
She owns a bed and breakfast and is swamped with wedding planning and reuniting with her BFFs: Tanya, the wealthy multi-divorcee Cougar played brilliantly seductive and sassy by Michele Colletti; and Rosie, the jovial single author played by non-other than Cindy Mixon, who is on a roll this season after playing the good-time-gal, Blanch DuBois-modeled character in the fan-favorite comedy “Four Old Broads.”
Collectively, the trio was once known as Donna and the Dynamos and find any excuse to perform and steal the limelight in “Super Trouper” and in the climax in ABBA signature glam-pop jumpsuits with ruffled flared sleeves and layered Bell bottoms, all part of the wardrobe by Costumer Charlotte Jones, an array which includes festive island wear, and gowns and snorkeling fins galore.
Mixon and Meahl earn their worth in baklava in the charming and hilarious “Take A Chance on Me” sequence with the actors proving they are both the real McCoy as entertainers with the kittenish screwball comedy pathos in which they thrive and excel.
And Colletti as the scolding vamp thrills is irresistible when she resists the advances of the studly houseboy (Sawyer Pollock as the habanero Pepper in his swimsuit glory) in the devilish “Does Your Mother Know.”
Sophie and her besties Ali and Lisa (Jenni Baldwin and Clare Ruble in gregarious high-energy turns) re delectable in “Honey, Honey” while her fiancé Sky, (John C. Leggett) is a credible heartthrob and confused young man, who spends his last days as a bachelor with beach bum frat boys Eddie (John Carino) and Pepper.
ManWaring is a dynamo as Donna, exhibiting her maternal nature and the spirit of a woman who still has a flickering of capacity for love in her serene “The Winner Takes It All” that brims with sincerity and passion, as well as her moving “Our Last Summer” duet with Connor’s Harry. And to boot, ManWaring persevered and prospered even with an injured ankle, for jaunty dramatic sprints with her girl-pals in blockbusters like “Dancing Queen.”
But the breakout star of “MAMMA MIA!” is Ms. Willis. After hearing her rage in Alannah Myles “Black Velvet” last year, I was taken aback by her softened timbre here. Through authenticity, golden sundrenched hair with subtle siren braids, and the glow of a young bride (enhanced some by the beam of an actor and expectant mother at 9 weeks), Willis is just so likable and sells the heck out of this otherwise ideal daughter and one-dimensional trope.
The dreamy set, also designed by Fagan, was transformed by scenic painters Jenni Baldwin and Sara Greene with Set Dressing by local artist Katherine Rausch and Props Master Javy Pagan.
And of course, the many exquisite wigs and styling are by resident hair and make-up artist Victor DeLeon who never falls short of perfection.
Susan Lyle is Music Director for the endearing and consistently impressive vocal work, meshing the voices to precision, particularly the extraordinary amount of off-stage backup harmonies by the chorus.
The Greek Chorus Ensemble includes experienced dancers William Wilkins and Parker Byun, Adam Vrana, Carley Tomlinson, Mark Spung-Wiles, Mary Pachatko, Erin O’Neil, Megan Noelle, and Marnie Daniel. And veteran guest character actor Rod McClendon appears in dual roles here, including the priest performing the ceremony.
Drew Kenyon in Stage Manager with Caroline Davis as Assistant Stage Manager and Roger Brown as sound engineer.
The arrangement of the “Overture” music track was on the lackluster side but the audiences does get the consolation of a rare lightshow by designer Kevin Frazier, the trusty lighting guru who works at most Greenville theatres and regionally. He does give away mood visuals for some of the numbers, but he has plenty of electrical tricks up his sleeve including dropdown party lights and splashes of illumination in the trellises. Awesome work, Kevin!
One comment about Friday’s performance, microphone levels or the mic placements themselves were slightly off in several numbers. But that’s already been remedied I am certain.
“MAMMA MIA!” continues through April 15 (no April 1 show) on Thursdays-Sundays at Centre Stage, 501 River St. in Greenville. Call (864) 233-6733 or visit www.centrestage.org.