On their own, Swedish disco-pop group ABBA’s insanely catchy hits are sexy, silly, and sometimes all but nonsensical; but strung together with a light-hearted storyline and a handful of lovable characters, they become better than they have any right to be.
This strange and wonderful alchemy is otherwise known as cash cow jukebox musical sensation “Mamma Mia!” With a 14-year run on Broadway, solidly placed in the top-ten longest running shows in both Broadway and West End history, and two movie adaptations, it’s a show people know and love and for which they clamor for more. And true to form, fans of the show made the current production at The Barn Theatre a practically sold-out run before it even opened.
It frankly doesn’t matter what anyone — critic or otherwise — has to say at this point about “Mamma Mia!”, but I’ll go ahead and describe how The Barn has put their stamp on this beloved show by making the most of these songs and story with depth of character and fun flair so you can decide how you’ll lie, cheat, or steal to get your hands on tickets if you don’t have them already.
The story that actually improves these songs by giving them meaning is simple, though at The Barn, it’s especially pleasing. Twenty-year-old Sophie is getting married at the taverna her free-spirited, feminist, single mom Donna runs on a Greek Island, and she longs to know who her father is so he can walk her down the aisle. After reading her mom’s diary, Sophie, unbeknownst to Donna, invites the three men who could potentially be her father to the wedding; and when they — as well as Donna’s oldest girlfriends and former bandmates — descend on the island, nostalgic shenanigans ensue.
Thanks to Director Brendan Ragotzy and some phenomenal performances, this Mamma Mia! is a playful delight. The strength of the women’s friendships is at the forefront, with wonderful development and moments between Penelope Alex as a striking Donna (whose rendition of “The Winner Takes it All” is a show stopper), Lori Moore as Rosie (who’s a stitch with Patrick Hunter as Bill), and Brooke Evans who’s a hoot as uber-wealthy, plastic-surgery loving, thrice-divorced, unwitting cougar Tanya. They appear to be legitimately having a ball together, and it’s downright infectious.
Bruce Hammond is a genuinely lovely Sam and makes “Knowing Me, Knowing You” better than it should be.
Sophie is often a forgettable ingenue role, but Melissa Cotton Hunter gives her such a rare complexity she downright owns this show. Her duet with Johnnie Carpathios (who is wonderful as fiancé Sky) in “Lay All Your Love on Me” is stellar — particularly coupled as a sizzling pas de deux.
Jamey Grisham’s choreography is a little bit Fosse, a little bit gay club, and plenty of silly and sweet and fun. It capitalizes on the music and they way we all want to sway and swing to songs like “Dancing Queen” with plenty of '70s dance moves and a whole lot more polish.
The orchestra makes the familiar songs sound great under Brent Decker’s musical direction, and Cameron Taylor’s guitar solos are outstanding.
Steven Lee Burright’s set makes the story appear to unfold in Greece with the stage framed by vaguely Ionic stone columns and Greek lettering to distinguish moving set pieces. Cosette Smith and Madison Merlanti’s costumes make use of shades of blue for a beach feel as well as glittery, shimmery, and animal-print extravaganzas where appropriate.
Though it’s a delightful, sold-out crowd pleaser, frankly, this show isn’t the best vehicle for this terrific company, who have range and skill far beyond what “Mamma Mia!” gives them an opportunity to show off. Thankfully, there’s also the best cabaret show of the season on offer after the show where ticket holders can see and hear some of the best of what this talented group can do when they’re not restrained by disco-pop and shiny spandex. Look forward to it, or do your best to distract yourself if you aren’t already a lucky ticket holder.