Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Mamma Mia!
Arizona Broadway Theatre
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's reviews of The Play That Goes Wrong, Max Raabe and the Palast Orchester, Death of a Salesman, and Wiesenthal


Jessica Medoff, Kaitlin Lawrence,
and Chae Clearwood

Photo by Scott Samplin
I have a confession to make. When I first saw Mamma Mia! in 1999 with the original London cast I didn't like it. I thought most of the familiar pop songs were shoehorned into the script, that the plot was predictable and that it pandered to the audience in its desire to get them clapping along and dancing in the aisles. I don't know if age, knowing the make-up of the musical, seeing additional productions of this show, or the fact that when I saw the musical in London we were far away from the stage seated up in the balcony has worn me down, but I'm now a Mamma Mia! fan. Most likely that change is due to having now seen subsequent presentations in which the exceptional casts and colorful creative elements provide an infectious production of this feel good musical. That's definitely the case with Arizona Broadway Theatre's current production, which has a perfect cast, splendid set, costumes and lighting designs, fun choreography, and direction that doesn't short-change the emotional center of this hit musical.

For those of you who've been living under a rock the past 20 years and have never heard of this musical or the film adaptation, or in case you need a refresher, the plot of Mamma Mia! is fairly simple. It begins when Sophie, a 20-year-old woman in Greece is engaged to be married but doesn't know exactly who her father is. When Sophie discovers that her mother Donna dated three different men around the time she was conceived, she decides to invite all three men to the wedding without her mother's knowledge, in hopes of finding out who her father is, have him walk her down the aisle, and hopefully rekindle his feelings for her mother. We discover all of that in the first song in the show. What follows next is more than two hours of romance, humor, a touch of drama, and a whole lot of dancing, all set to the familiar beat of over 20 well-known hit songs from the 1970s Swedish pop band Abba.

While the majority of the characters in the musical are basically caricatures or archetypes, director Clayton Phillips has found a cast who deliver fairly realistic, fleshed out, three-dimensional portrayals. Phillips also ensures the dramatic moments resonate while the comedy and upbeat musical sequences shine with fun, varied choreography by Kurtis Overby that is well danced by the cast and assured solo vocals and tight backing harmonies thanks to music director Mark 4Man.

Kaitlin Lawrence is just about perfect as Donna. She projects a strong sense of independence and the frenzied nature that a woman running her own hotel who is also hosting her daughter's wedding would exhibit. Over the course of the show we find out that Donna gave up on love after having her heart broken, and Lawrence's soaring performance of "The Winner Takes it All," which echoes the harsh feelings of a person who is suffering from heartache, is excellent and got the most applause at the performance I attended. Alexandra Carter is equally good as Sophie. Her ability to portray both determination and fear when Sophie isn't quite sure if her plan to find her father is the right thing to do, especially once all three men appear and the reality of it sets in, is quite good. Both women also have beautiful singing voices and their duet of "Slipping Through My Fingers," as Sophie is getting dressed for her wedding, is quite touching.

Jessica Medoff and Chae Clearwood are hilarious as Donna's two best friends, Tanya and Rosie. Medoff shines as the uppity Tanya while Clearwood is charming as the fun-loving Rosie. They, along with Lawrence, come across as best friends who have known each other for years. The three have a blast singing such songs as "Dancing Queen" and "Super Trooper." Medoff's clear and crisp vocals are excellent, and she has fun toying with Jacob Herrera on "Does Your Mother Know?" Clearwood has good comic chops which she puts to good use throughout the show. Her comical duet of "Take a Chance on Me" with Andy Meyers is a major highlight.

Meyers, Matthew J. Taylor, and Brian Ashton Miller all deliver strong performances as the three possible fathers. Taylor's voice shines on two of Abba's biggest hits, "S.O.S." and "Knowing Me, Knowing You," as Sam, the man who has never forgotten the woman he loved. Meyers' natural comic timing and "every man" sensibility work perfectly as Bill, and Miller brings a lovely sense of warmth and charm to both his character Harry and to the show. Also, Nicholas Kuhn's assured line delivery and strong stage presence create one of the most fleshed-out portrayals of Sky, Sophie's fiancé, in the six different productions of this show I've seen.

With bright white buildings, a shimmering turquoise ocean, and a sky in varying shades of blue with a bright sun and just a few wispy clouds, Douglas Clarke's set design beautifully evokes the sunny warmth of the Greek Islands. Jeff A. Davis' lighting expertly paints the stage in a wide range of colors that work perfectly for the sunny daytime scenes, the cool evening moments, and the fantasy sequences. The costume designs by Kathleen Trott provide naturally realistic outfits that are character specific.

With an upbeat story, fun characters, and a score including many recognizable pop songs from the '70s, it's no wonder Mamma Mia! has become a hit show seen by millions of people around the world. Arizona Broadway Theatre's production has a winning cast, rich creative elements, and solid direction that make for a fun and infectious musical if you're a fan of Abba or romantic comedies, or if you're just someone looking for a fun night out.

Mamma Mia!, through April 20, 2019, at Arizona Broadway Theatre, 7701 West Paradise Lane, Peoria AZ. Tickets can be ordered at www.azbroadway.org or by calling 623-776-8400.

Direction: Clayton Phillips
Choreography: Kurtis Overby
Music Direction: Mark 4Man
Scenic Design: Douglas Clarke
Lighting Design: Jeff A. Davis
Costume Design: Kathleen Trott
Wig/Makeup Design: Amanda Gran
Sound Design: Connor Adams
Stage Manager: Ethan Hoover
Executive Producer: Kiel Klaphake
Casting and Artistic Producer: Cassandra Klaphake

Cast:
Donna Sheridan: Kaitlin Lawrence
Sophie Sheridan: Alexandra Carter
Tanya: Jessica Medoff
Rosie: Chae Clearwood
Bill Austin: Andy Meyers
Harry Bright: Brian Ashton Miller
Sam Carmichael: Matthew J. Taylor*
Sky: Nicholas Kuhn
Pepper: Jacob Herrera
Ali: Amanda Lopez
Lisa: Erika Wasko
Eddie: Jabriel Shelton
Father Alexandrios: Kyle Yampiro
Ensemble: Jasmine Bassham, Blair Beasley, Liz Fallon, Lynzee Foreman, Renée Kathleen Koher, Cesar Razza, Brendan Trybus, Dyllan Vallier and Brody Wurr

* appears courtesy Actors' Equity Association


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