Regional Reviews: Phoenix
The plot of Mamma Mia! is fairly simple. Sophie, a young girl living in Greece with her single mother, is engaged to be married but doesn't know who her father is. She discovers that her mother dated three different guys around the time she was conceived and decides to invite all three of them to the wedding without her mother's knowledge. Her dream is that she will find out which of the three men is her father, have him walk her down the aisle, and hopefully have him rekindle his feelings for her mother. Things don't go exactly as planned, but romance, hilarity, and plenty of dancing ensue, to the disco beat of over 20 Abba songs, with a plot that doesn't always go where you think it will.
Catherine Johnson's book may include a few of ABBA pop tunes that are uncomfortably shoehorned into the plot, but many of the pop lyrics actually have a natural theatrical feel to them and fit the characters' voices, which makes them flow realistically from Johnson's mostly sharp dialogue that makes each character unique. The upbeat story and humorous situations, not to mention the fact that audiences probably know half of the songs already, are what has made Mamma Mia! a phenomenon.
The entire cast is excellent. Phoenix Theatre favorite Debby Rosenthal is Donna, the mother of Sophie, played by Sarah Daniels. They both deliver layered performances of these identifiable characters who change and grow throughout the show. Rosenthal does well in portraying the headstrong woman who gave up on love after having her heart broken, while Daniels at first projects a focused determination as the young girl who desperately wants to find out who her father is but quickly becomes nervous and scared once her plan starts to go in a different direction than she thought it would. They evoke a realistic mother/daughter relationship which is beautifully displayed during "Slipping Through My Fingers," which Rosenthal sweetly sings to Daniels as Sophie is getting dressed for the wedding. Rosenthal also navigates her way effortlessly around "The Winner Takes It All" which becomes an emotional story-song and Daniels' lovely voice manages its way effectively around several familiar ABBA tunes.
Elyse Wolf and Katie McFadzen are having a blast as Donna's two best friends Tanya and Rosie. As soon as they appear on stage together, Rosenthal, Wolf and McFadzen immediately come across as best friends who have known each other for more than twenty years. Wolf and McFadzen have well-honed comedic abilities and clear and bright singing voices. The trio of women sing some of ABBA's biggest hits, including "Dancing Queen" and "Super Trooper," which features some beautiful blended harmonies.
As Sophie's three possible fathers, Phillip Arran as Sam, D. Scott Withers as Bill, and Kyle Sorrell as Harry all elicit firm and clear portrayals of these three very different men whom Johnson interweaves into the story very well, with each character not only getting a decent amount of stage time and songs to sing but also growing throughout the plot. All three actors do exceptionally well in their scenes with Daniels, as they start to realize they might be her father, and they also work well in their moments with Rosenthal's Donna, a woman all three clearly had feelings for. Arran gets the more serious moments to play, as the man who has never forgotten the woman he loved, and his beautiful voice delivers "S.O.S." and "Knowing Me, Knowing You" with ease. Withers and McFadzen turn their charming and funny duet of "Take a Chance on Me" into a showstopper. Mark Bacon does well to make Sky, Sophie's fiancé, more than just a one-dimensional "surfer dude," and Brant Michaels as Sky's friend Pepper makes "Does Your Mother Know?" (with Elyse Wolf) into a comic gem filled with some high-flying footwork.
Michaels also provides the superb upbeat, fun, and ever-changing choreography, which includes an excellently staged "Voulez Vos" dance that ends act one. Director Robert Kolby Harper keeps the show moving at a fast pace with a light comical air but also ensures the serious and emotional beats are present and felt. I've seen the original production of this show three times and this is the first time that I found myself getting a little teary-eyed toward the end, which is all due to Harper's fine direction and the talented cast creating realistic characters you can care for.
Creative elements, as usual at Phoenix Theatre, are sublime, with Robert Kovach's scenic design beautifully evoking the peaceful Greek island location with a large rotating center element that quickly and efficiently creates the various locations in the story. Michael J. Eddy's stunning lighting design uses bright oranges and yellows to elicit the bright, sunny Greek days, and blues, purples and pinks to produce stunning images for the cool and dark evenings. Cari Sue Smith's costumes play off the blues and whites in Kovach's set design, including excellent and creative finale costumes that aren't just carbon copies of the original production. Alan Ruch's music direction delivers an impressive sound from the band as well as vibrant vocals from the cast and ensemble who provide backing vocals offstage on many of the songs.
Mamma Mia! is a feel-good musical with romance, humor and several heartfelt moments. Phoenix Theatre's production, with its winning cast, who deliver sincere and realistic portrayals of these lovable characters, bright direction, fun choreography, and sharp creative aspects, is a fun and infectious crowd pleaser.
Phoenix Theatre's production of Mamma Mia! runs through October 15th, 2017, with performances at the Phoenix Theatre at 100 E. McDowell Road in Phoenix AZ. Tickets can be purchased at phoenixtheatre.com or by calling (602) 254-2151
Director/Musical Staging: Robert Kolby Harper
*Members of Actors' Equity Association, the union of professional actors & stage managers in the U.S.