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Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Mamma Mia!
Chanhassen Dinner Theatres
Review by Renee Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's review of She Persists: The Great Divide III


Kersten Rodau and Cast
Photo by Tom Wallace
Chanhassen Dinner Theatres' production of Mamma Mia! arrives on the lingering tailwinds of Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again!, the sequel to the film adaptation. Even without this strategic timing, it would surely not be hard to find an audience for the show. In fact, Mamma Mia! has remained popular since its debut in 1999 in London's West End, and has since been performed in 40 countries and grossed two billion dollars. ("Money, Money, Money" is right!) A huge part of the draw is the upbeat music, which comprises songs by 1970s pop music sensation ABBA.

When Catherine Johnson set out to write the book for Mamma Mia!, she faced a clear challenge: to create a cohesive plot using a variety of songs that had no actual connection to one another. All things considered, she was remarkably successful. The storyline is campy and frivolous, but it holds together while also incorporating the musical numbers with remarkable adeptness. Although the purpose of each song to the story is at time less than essential, it is always clear. Moreover, the songs by ABBA members Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus are catchy and upbeat. During stand out numbers "Money, Money, Money" and "Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!," you will have to restrain yourself from singing-singing-singing along.

For newcomers, the premise of the story is this: On the brink of marriage, young Sophie Sheridan decides to reunite for the first time with her long lost father. The problem? There are three potential dads to choose from, and not even her mother knows which is the real deal. Between wedding planning, the reunion of Donna with the bandmates of her younger days, and Sophie's efforts to build rapport with three unwitting men, plenty of chaos and hilarity ensues. The real shining star of Johnson's book is the brightness of the characters. Mother and daughter pair Donna and Sophie share the limelight as each navigates the balance between independence and love. Meanwhile, the potential dads show unexpected sincerity in confronting their pasts.

Of course, any multidimensional character requires strong acting chops to make it from book to stage, and the cast of Chanhassen's production delivers admirably. At the dramatic center of the show, Kersten Rodau gives an outstanding performance as Donna Sheridan. The role is deceptively complex in emotion, ranging from the cynicism of "Money, Money, Money," to the lighthearted comedy of "Super Trouper," and to the sweet sentimentality of "Slipping through My Fingers"—sometimes in the span of a single scene. Rodau's acting is spot on, and her voice is excellent. Those who saw her as Medda Larkin in Chanhassen Dinner Theatres' production of Newsies last summer will quickly realize she has far more to offer than the smaller part displayed. Her solo here, the 11 o'clock number "The Winner Takes It All," is beautiful, powerful, and note perfect in both literal and figurative terms. It is the most memorable scene in the entire production.

As for the rest of the cast, John-Michael Zuerlein does excellent work in the role of Sam Carmichael. It is a shame that Sam only becomes central during the second act, because Zuerlein's performance of "Knowing Me, Knowing You" packs an emotional punch and is delivered with an excellent voice that deserves more attention than the part provides. Jessica Fredrickson does a fine job portraying Sophie as innocent with a touch of mischief and a heap of charm, and she brings a strong voice to the role as well. Michelle Barber and Therese Walth are crowd pleasers as former Dynamos Tanya and Rosie, respectively. In particular, Barber raises cheers when she puts a young suitor in his place during "Does Your Mother Know." Walth and Jay Albright (as Bill Austen) deliver a fabulous rendition of "Take a Chance on Me" that has everyone rooting for the unlikely couple. Michael Gruber is perfectly cast in the role of British rocker-turned-gentleman Harry Bright. His musical spotlight in "Our Last Summer" strikes a sweeter note.

A number of smaller roles interact seamlessly with an excellent ensemble of vacationers. Aleks Knezevich fits the bill as Sophie's fiancé Sky, though it must be said that he and Fredrickson fail to convince in the steamy "Lay All Your Love on Me." Emily Sue Bengtson (Lisa) and Renee Guittar (Ali) lend swell voices and dance moves to Sophie's bridal party. Thomas Schumacher gives a fine performance as Father Alexandrios, but the repeated presence of an Orthodox priest feels out of place in this tongue-in-cheek romantic comedy, Greek setting aside.

Mamma Mia! packs all the fun typical of a Chanhassen Dinner Theatres production under the capable direction of Michael Brindisi, who is also the president of the theatre company's artistic program. He keeps things moving smoothly from song to song, while making sure the audience can follow a plot that does not prioritize logic. Brindisi also finds the right balance between comedy and story, sacrificing neither and achieving both. The set by Nayna Ramey is simple in conception, but attractive and extremely functional. It also—miracle of miracles—manages to create a sense of Mediterranean paradise even with snow piled high outside. Tamara Kangas Erickson's choreography is professional, fun, and well executed to the tune of Chanhassen's excellent band, under the direction of Andrew Cooke.

Mamma Mia! is not likely to change your life, but Chanhassen Dinner Theatres' production of the ABBA extravaganza will be certain to entertain. If you are looking for great tunes, plentiful laughs, surprisingly complex characters, and a feel-good storyline, Mamma Mia! is definitely "The Name of the Game."

Mamma Mia!, through September 28, 2019, at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres, 501 West 78th Street, Chanhassen MN. Tickets including dinner and show: $68.00- $93.00. Show-only tickets, 10 or fewer days before performance: $53.00 - $78.00. Check website for senior (age 55+) and student (ages 5 - 17) discounts. For tickets call 952-934-1525 or go to www.chanhassendt.com.

Book: Catherine Johnson; Music and Lyrics: Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus; Additional Music and Lyrics: Stig Anderson; Originally Conceived by: Judy Craymer; Director: Michael Brindisi; Choreographer: Tamara Kangas Erickson; Musical Director: Andrew Cooke; Scenic Design: Nayna Ramey; Costume Design: Rich Hamson; Lighting Design: Sue Ellen Berger; Sound Design: Russ Haynes; Hair and Make-Up Design: Paul Bigot; Production Stage Manager: Dan Foss.

Cast: Jay Albright (Bill Austin), Michelle Barber (Tanya), Emily Sue Bengtson (Lisa), Rush Benson (Pepper), Jessica Fredrickson (Sophie Sheridan), Michael Gruber (Harry Bright), Renee Guittar (Ali), Aleks Knezevich (Sky), Kersten Rodau (Donna Sheridan), Thomas Schumacher (Father Alexandrios), Tony Vierling (Eddie), Therese Walth (Rosie), John-Michael Zuerlein (Sam Carmichael).

Ensemble: Alan Bach, Tommy Benson, Teri Parker-Brown, Nicole Renée Chapman, Gabrielle Dominique, Nickie Kromminga Hill, Mark King, Kasano Mwanza, Joey Miller, Jordan Oxborough, Laura Rudolph, Brian Saice, Thomas Schumacher, Alyssa Seifert, Lucas Wells.


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