Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Mamma Mia!
Ordway Center for the Performing Arts
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's review of The Best Summer Ever


Emilio Ramos, Ann Michels, Ben Bakken and Cast
Photo by Rich Ryan
About a year and a half ago I finally saw Mamma Mia!, the juggernaut that played on Broadway for 14 years. That long run had recently closed and, after seven previous tours, the show was making a last circuit of the nation, calling it the "farewell tour." I joined the faithful throngs at the Orpheum in Minneapolis and was initiated into the joys of this charlotte rouse of a show. Well, farewell tour or not, Mamma Mia! cannot be kept away. The show is back in a terrific Ordway original production. It sports a superb and tireless cast, fantastic design work that dazzles the eye while tickling the funny bone, effervescent choreography, and—what matters most of all—those same indispensable ABBA songs, alternating between infectious dance grooves and ardent power ballads.

All of the above is the good news. The bad news is that the goofy plot woven by Catherine Johnson to create a frame on which to hang the parade of hits by the Swedish super group, is, well, goofy as ever. The premise is twenty-year-old young Sophie Sheridan—beautiful, bright, and well adjusted—raised on a Greek island by her American single mom Donna. On the brink of getting married, Sophie decides she must know which of the three men with whom her mom dallied during the month of her conception is her father. So, without telling her mom, she invites all three guys to her wedding, certain that she will know her dad when she sees him. This is all handled in a light-hearted way, with all three gentlemen befuddled as to the reason for being invited by a flame of two decades past, but they come, no matter the cost of getting there, or the unspoken circumstances. The lack of logic in the storyline is illustrated in the first scene in which Sophie joyfully welcomes her two best friends, who are to be her bridesmaids, back to the island. Okay. Sophie grew up on this island, so how did she come to be best friends with two girls who, obviously, live a great distance away? No one says, no one cares. It's a fairy tale, and the Abba songs provide the magic dust.

Two other characters who figure prominently are Donna's two best friends, with whom—back in the day—she fronted a pop singing group, Donna and the Dynamos. The three exemplify three brands of independent womanhood. Donna exhibits a bounty of resilience, raising her daughter alone with no family support, while establishing a successful taverna and inn. Tanya has had three husbands, happily becoming wealthy along the way, with no show of regret or loss over the demise of all three marriages. Rosie rejected marriage, as well, it seems, as any entanglement with a man, to pursue a life of promoting feminist causes. Their reunion prompts them to relive their glory days, while adding a theme of strong, independent womanhood to the sappy romance at Mamma Mia!'s core.

Since the treasures from the ABBA songbook are the overriding reason for this musical to exist, any production needs a troupe ready and able to deliver those tunes with conviction and in character. The astonishing thing about Catherine Johnson's book, goofy as it is, is that she has actually been able to make the songs flow from the narrative, whether to reveal or expand on feelings, capture the thrust of a dilemma, or illuminate a character. Christine Sherrill, as Donna, leads the way, with a powerful set of pipes, pouring her heart into "The Winner Takes It All," which serves as a gutsy eleven o'clock number, leading the way in describing her need for "Money, Money, Money," voicing regrets as her daughter is about to leave the nest in "Slipping Through My Fingers," revealing angst over the unexpected appearance of her three former flames in "Mamma Mia!," and joining in with her gal pals in a riotous "Dancing Queen." All the while she displays the staunch world view that has enabled her to beat the odds and make a go of her life.

As Sophie, Caroline Innerbichler has an engaging voice, ideally suited for the pop styling of her songs, and a charismatic charm that makes it easy to believe any of these three men would be happy to have her as a daughter. The flaw in her charm is that it is hard to believe she is so deeply troubled by not knowing the identity of her father that she conspires behind the back of her mother and her fiancé, for she seems so thoroughly well-adjusted and ebullient. But we forgive her, for in Mamma Mia!, everything is forgiven. Ann Michels, who has been seen recently playing upright characters in Mary Poppins, Five Corners, Paint Your Wagon, Annie and Sunday in the Park with George, makes the most of the chance to cut loose as upper-cougar Tanya, teasing the juice out of a young suitor in "Does Your Mother Know?". Erin Schwab's comic timing is put to great use as Rosie, balancing her strong feminist values with a streak of self-deprecation that hilariously comes to a peak in "Take a Chance on Me."

Of the men in the cast, Dieter Bierbrauer has the most to work with as Sam, who from the start is most confused and disturbed by being brought back into Donna Sheridan's life. Bierbrauer confirms his place as one of the Twin Cities' most reliable musical theater performers, especially shining in a tenderly delivered "Knowing Me, Knowing You." Robert O. Berdahl is persuasive as Harry, the former "head banger" turned banker, who shares a lovely duet with Sherrill's Donna, "Our Last Summer." Aloysius Gigl brings a lot of zest to the role of Bill, a free-spirited Australian, taking the spotlight with "The Name of the Game." Sophie's fiancé Sky is played by Patrick Connaghan, who has the striking good looks and soothing voice to match Innerbichler's effervescent Sophie, and conveys the innocence of a young man who doesn't know what he's getting himself into, but is game to take the plunge.

Another reason Mamma Mia! works is the idyllic setting, on an unnamed Greek island, where everyone, even the waiters, seem to be on perpetual vacation, and no one is troubled by having to speak Greek. The setting is beautifully rendered, a combination of effort by set designer Rick Polenek and lighting designer Ed McCarthy that creates an image of complete escape from real life. The costumes, designed by Rose Person and MaryBeth Gagner, are a mix of relaxed resort wear and out-of-your mind tributes to the garish hard-rock apparel of the 1970s, when ABBA first soared. Andy Hora and Big Air Productions have designed a sound system that allows us to clearly hear the vocals even when backed by music director Raymond Berg's nine-piece orchestra—four of them keyboards!—that performs the music with sonic muscle.

The large ensemble does a terrific job, with strong singing and athletic dancing to make every number a crowd pleaser. Mitch Sebastian's choreography feels fresh, as if this material is being set to inflating the party atmosphere of the entire enterprise to soaring heights. The entire package has been skillfully directed by Martha Banta, who, as associate director for the Broadway and national touring productions, knows her way around Mamma Mia!, assembling the cast and creative team into a vibrant whole that entertains from the first note to the last. The one thing I would have left out is the off-stage pop-style vocals chorus accompanying several of the songs, diminishing the impact of those numbers with overt reminders that this is just a show.

When all is said and done, Mamma Mia! is just a show, and one not to take too seriously. It opened on Broadway just six weeks after the tragedy of September 11. The reaction to such a lighter than air show might have been that something so silly, without depth or introspection, did not suit the moment. Instead, Mamma Mia! was embraced with open arms, as a tuneful and giddy release that allowed audiences to set aside their shock and fear for an evening, an affirmation that having a fabulous time in public was still possible. Mamma Mia! need do no more than that to prove its worth, over and over. As the song says "Mamma Mia, here we go again."

Mamma Mia!, through August 5, 2018, at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts 345 Washington Street, Saint Paul MN. Tickets from $132.00- $48.00, Standing Room: $34.00. For tickets call 651 224-4222 or go to Ordway.org.

Book: Catherine Johnson; Music and Lyrics: Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus; Additional Music and Lyrics: Stig Anderson; Additional Material and Arrangements: Martin Koch; Originally Conceived by: Judy Cramer; Director: Martha Banta; Choreographer: Mitch Sebastian; Musical Director: Raymond Berg; Scenic Design: Rick Polenek; Costume Design: Rose Pederson and MaryBeth Gagner; Lighting Design: Ed McCarthy; Sound Design: Andy Horka/Big Air Productions; Video Design: Kathy Maxwell; Hair and Make-Up Design: Robert A. Dunn; Props Coordinator: Abbee Warmboe; Casting: Reid Harmsen; Production Manager: Andrew G. Luft; Stage Manager: Stina Lotti; Assistant Music Director: Kyle Picha; Assistant Stage Managers: Katie Hawkinson and Todd Kalina.

Cast: Ben Bakken (Eddie), Robert O. Berdahl (Harry Bright), Dieter Bierbrauer (Sam Carmichael), China Brickey (Lisa), Reese Britts (Father Alexandrios), Patrick Connaghan (Sky), Elena Glass (Ali), Aloysius Gigl (Bill Austin), Caroline Innerbichler (Sophie Sheridan), Ann Michels (Tanya), Emilio Ramos (Pepper), Erin K. Schwab (Rosie), Christine Sherrill (Donna Sheridan).

Ensemble: Mathias Anderson, Lisa Bartholomew-Given, Shina Brashears, Jen Burleigh-Bentz, Joshua James Campbell, Lauren Hugh, Patrick Charles Jeffrey, Cailyn Joy Johnson, Dwight Leslie, Abby Magalee, Adam Moen, Britta Ollmann, Jorge Quintero, Maureen Sherman-Mendez.


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