Reviewed by Nancy Oliveri
I wish I could tell you that you still had a chance to see SRO Productions III’s Mamma Mia, and that my little review could encourage you to do that, but shortly after I saw it on opening night late last month, tickets totally disappeared. Nevertheless, there is a lot to reflect on, so thank you for indulging me. (And I am sorry for the delay if you were anticipating this.)
Over the two-weekend run (Jan. 25-27, Feb. 1-3) of this lively, nostalgic jukebox musical, SRO lived up to its standing room only name, leaving no seat unoccupied for its eight-show run of Mamma Mia. Yes,“eight,” because the show was so popular that SRO had to add an extra Saturday matinee that producer Pam Ondrusek said also sold out immediately.
By now everyone is aware that the story line for Mamma Mia was concocted around some of the best hits produced by Abba, the Swedish pop band of the 1970s. Music and lyrics were composed by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus with the book by Catherine Johnson, from an original concept by Judy Cramer. Maybe you’ve seen the movie, or even own a copy of the DVD starring Meryl Streep, but there’s nothing like a live performance.
For this production, under the able direction of Scott Fisher and Andrew Simek, the Schorr Family Firehouse Stage (a former Johnson City fire station) was transformed into a Greek resort, complete with a working fountain in a central courtyard. The clever design was by Gene Czebiniak.
The Shorr always adapts the space to accommodate the audience, without crowding anyone in the process. Acting spaces and bistro seating shared real estate on various levels of the periphery, which kept the audience directly and happily engaged with the action.
Thanks to my age, hearing hits such as “Mamma Mia,” “Dancing Queen,” “The Name of the Game,” “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” “SOS” and “I Do (x5)” was enough to have me moving in my seat and a little hard-pressed — OK, a lot hard-pressed — not to jump up to join the large ensemble on the dance floor/stage. Disco ball and smoke machine were a bonus!
About the plot: Donna Sheridan is a struggling resort owner and single mom who is about to see her only daughter, Sophie, married. Unbeknownst to her mother, Sophie has invited to the wedding the three guys her mother’s private diary indicate might be her father,. She wants her dad, whoever he is, to be the ceremony, possibly to walk her down the aisle. All three accept, thinking the invite is from Donna, but blissfully unaware of the strings that are attached.
A little far-fetched? Yes. But the plot and, of course, the music, offer a number of rich possibilities for funny, moving and satisfying moments … even the impossibly corny “Winner Takes it All.”
Sophie, sweetly played by SRO newbie Tess Markham, and her friends Ali (Adriana Kabat) and Lisa (Anna Simek) have a blast imagining Sophie’s mom seducing her old boyfriends with “Honey, Honey.”
Alex Mendoza and Laura Liburdi played Donna’s friends, Rosie and Tanya respectively, who have also flown to Greece for the wedding.
They might have had a little too much ouzo as they flirt their way around the resort with hilarious results, as conveyed in Tanya’s “Does Your Mother Know?” Tanya was a cougar before we started calling women that. She and resort bartender Pepper (JD Smith) and company had fun with this.
Donna, played by Christina Taylor, has an understated acting style and used it to elicit the blend of toughness and sentimentality her character required. With Tanya and Rosie, the working girl anthem “Money, Money, Money,” was catchy and relatable. When they belted out “Dancing Queen” and “Super Trouper,” I was right there with them, too.
Taylor and Markham both have lovely, clear voices. Their duet, “Slipping Through My Fingers,” as mom helps daughter dress for her wedding, supplied a moment of genuine tenderness that brought this mother of a soon-to-be-married daughter almost to tears. Thank God for comic relief, also plentiful in this show.
The three contenders for Sophie’s dad, Sam (Shan Towns), Harry (John Penid) and Bill (Larry Guidici) had a number of great bits. “Take a Chance on Me” with Rosie and Bill was a show-stopper … campy and fun! Guidici’s expressions as he realized he was being hit on were priceless! Mendoza showed off both her vocal range and her talent for comedic movement.
Rick Kumpon made a perfect Greek Orthodox priest, Father Alexandrios, and wore the priestly vestments well. Although he didn’t sing much in this show, I know that he can sing, too.
The young men in this show were also great, with Eli Carlin as Sky, Sophie’s fiancé, and his pals, Pepper (JD Smith) and Eddie (Vito Longo).
Carlin’s got an exceptionally controlled and beautiful voice … as good as any I’ve heard in a professional or amateur show. He tore it up, backed by the male ensemble, with “Lay All Your Love on Me.” The song really conveys the changes a man goes through from free agent to hooked, with line and sinker. And, OMG, it’s a disco song! I forgot how much I loved disco until I heard this. Thirty-plus years disappeared in a flash.
It happened again when the incredible female ensemble danced and sang “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight).” And I think that’s the whole point of a show like Mamma Mia. Escapism, nostalgia, wistfulness, etc. and music that sticks with you days after the last note fades.
A nightmare sequence featuring “Under Attack” opens the second act. Not my favorite part of the show, but it set up the second act and exhibited some interesting special effects using photos by Randy Cummings.
The ensemble cast of 20 (!) played a key part here in making this show as enjoyable as it was. Members, in program order, were Kristen Duff, Kaylea Lockwood, Kat Euker, Marjorie Loughran, RJ Fox, Donna Melfi, Megan Germond, Hannah Merrill, Grace Goosman, Nick Merrill, Dawn Gould, John Reidan Pitarresi, Jeanne Graham, Madyson Rice, Jessica Hyland, Andrew Simek, Mari Lewis, Jill Southee-Kabat, David Liburdi and Leander Tanner.
The song and dance numbers these people brought to life were choreographed by not one but six choreographers: Anne Tribelcock, Ann Szymaniak, Kaylea Lockwood, Annie Graham, Shelley Krisco, and Kendall Hanrahan.
Bonnie DeForest and Parker Howland had the awesome responsibility of stage manager and assistant stage manager, with Joe Roma as technical director and Krista Guidici as Trak technician. Luke Redmore did lighting with Scott Fisher, and Sean Sherwood kept the decibels where they needed to be as sound technician. The musical accompaniment was prerecorded but sounded fine in this venue. The costumes by Jan McMahon and the cast reminded me that I need a vacation somewhere warm, but being at this show was a mini vacation in itself.
So my takeaway from this is: Buy your tickets EARLY for SRO’S next musical, Avenue Q, or you may be left standing out on Willow Street, where the Schorr Family Firehouse Stage is located, wishing you’d done just that. Dates for that show, back by popular demand, are May 31 to June 2 — one weekend only!