Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

Mamma Mia!
Hillbarn Theatre
Review by Eddie Reynolds

Also see Eddie's review of Flower Drum Song

Christine Capsuto-Shulman, Merrill Peiffer
and Jacquie McCarley

Photo by Mark and Tracy Photography
More than 65 million people have seen it worldwide, including fourteen years on Broadway and now in its twentieth year in theatres of London's West End. Touted as having had (and still having) more productions than any other musical in history, Mamma Mia! even seems to have at any given moment a production just produced, in progress, or soon to open here in the San Francisco Bay Area—this year including Pleasanton, San Jose, Fairfield, and Saratoga.

Add to that list an eye-popping, big-sounding, and crowd-pleasing Mamma Mia! at Hillbarn Theatre—so crowd-pleasing that the entire run has already been totally sold out. If the opening night audience is any indication, the rest of May will see audiences literally dancing in the aisles as they revel in the twenty-two ABBA hits (music and lyrics by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus; some songs with Stig Anderson). Every song seems to be a popular favorite in a musical that appears to have no end or limit to its universal, feel-good popularity.

The sheer joy of this Mamma Mia! is the big-stage quality the audience gets to enjoy in the intimate, close-up space of the Hillbarn Theatre. The cast of nineteen dance and sing in seventies glory just a few feet away, often using the aisles. The characters most of us already know well from past, live productions or from the Meryl Streep et al 2008 movie now are close enough to allow us to become reacquainted in a much more personal manner. With a cast that is to a person talented singing-wise and also able to portray uniquely defined personas that pop with pizzazz and personality, it is no wonder the audience that clearly came in the door full of buzz and laughter to have a good time exits with grins so wide they hardly fit through the door.

In case there is a reader who has somehow missed seeing some version of this queen of the jukebox musicals (book by Catherine Johnson), the setting is on a small, Greek island where a resort's white buildings are adorned with Mediterranean blue doors and shutters, and draped in colorful flowers (in this case, re-created beautifully by scenic designer Paulino Deleal). Donna Sheridan is the owner who landed here in the 1970s as a leftover flower child and never left, quickly becoming at that time the mother of a daughter whose father she has never mentioned.

That daughter, Sophie, is to marry tomorrow and has secretly invited—with the help of her mother's discovered diary—three men to the wedding, any of whom could potentially be the father she so wants to walk her down the aisle. As she describes to two of her friends while also singing "Honey, Honey," between July 15 and August 17 twenty-one years earlier, her mother met Sam, then Bill, and then Harry—all described in her diary as "what a night" with the ending of the entry being the highly suggestive "..." It was during one of those "three dots" that twenty-year-old Sophie is now convinced she was conceived.

We meet Sophie in an opening flashback as she mails three letters to her mother's past one-night flings, inviting each under her mother's forged signature to her upcoming wedding. Immediately in "I Have a Dream," Sofia Costantini sings with a voice that sells itself as totally appealing, emotionally rich, and invigoratingly fresh and full of wonder. Each number thereafter, her depiction of Sophie and her ability to hit every note with just the right flip, twist, or zing only get better and more convincing. With her youthful beauty of both voice and personality, her Sophie becomes one of two threads that bind the entire story.

The other powerful thread of the story is spun by the mighty performance of Merrill Peiffer as Sophie's mother Donna. A single mother who wears proudly her banner of independence, Donna is dismissive to the point of near agitation that her daughter is having a white dress with minister wedding. But her spirits rise when her two best friends and back-ups to her former Donna and the Dynamos band, Tanya and Rosie, arrive. The three rousingly reminisce those girl-band days and their lives since in "Money, Money, Money," the first of the evening's several stage-filling production numbers. Resort workers and arriving wedding guests join Donna's belting voice in the song's contagious, well-known chorus.

Merrill Peiffer time and again brings vocals that have striking, nightclub strength and appeal (as in "The Winner Takes It All") and prove their ability to soften to lyrically reflective introspection (as in "Slipping through My Fingers"). The parallel storylines of Donna and Sophie and their individual surprise discoveries of what is really important for the next chapters in their lives give this jukebox-packed, fantasy island story some plotline appeal—in this case, largely due to the excellent interpretations and manifest talents of these two actresses.

Fortunately for us, they are surrounded by others who also deserve praise. Donna's two friends each are an absolute hoot for different reasons. Jacquie McCarley's Rosie is an unmarried, carefree woman with a big heart and vigorous vocals whose sense of dress style is colorfully wild and very questionable. She becomes a hilariously pursuing animal of prey as she tries to grab a man for herself in "Take a Chance on Me."

Christine Capsuto-Shulman is the thrice-divorced, alimony-rich Tanya who struts her style in stilettos and whatever little she can fit into as tightly as possible. Her Tanya is a comic delight, electrifying every scene she enters, providing waves of chuckles and outright laughter with facial expressions that Lucille Ball would have been proud to own and hip swivels and body swerves that reincarnate the 1970s "cuchi-cuchi" Charo. Like McCarley, Capsuto-Shulman brings her own distinctly unique, bold, brassy set of pipes, using them to bellow in a deep voice that sometimes echoes that of Cher (as when she leads a sexy, salsa-moving "Does Your Mother Know").

Whenever the two friends join Donna to revive their past days as a performing trio, the three blend in ABBA-close harmonies ("Chiquitita"), romp in silliness as if at a slumber party ("Dancing Queen"), and knock it out of the ballpark with glitter and sequins glistening in one of the audience's particular favorites, "Super Trouper."

But there are also men in the cast of Mamma Mia!. Each of the three men who show up as the possible sperm donor that resulted in Sophie makes a unique impression in the production, even as their arrival totally freaks out and infuriates the surprised Donna. Lawrence Long is Bill Austin, a life-long travel writer who lives out of his backpack. Long brings to his part a big, bearish presence with teddy-bear tenderness and resounding, deep, and impressive vocals. As English-accented Harry Bright, Brandon Savage is a mild-mannered and generous-hearted banker who ably matches the intensity of Donna's vocals with his own full, rich voice as they duet in "The Name of the Game," also playing right into the seduction of Rosie with his own hilarity and big voice in "Take a Chance on Me."

Rounding out the trio is Randy Allen as Sam Carmichael, the man who clearly once broke Donna's heart the most and who has come back hoping to light a spark there again. Allen's dynamic voice has a keen edge that rings true in numbers like "S.O.S." (a duet of past regrets sung with Donna) and in a failed attempt of father-like advice to Sophie as he sings "Knowing Me, Knowing You," although his delivery on opening night was often quite statuesque with little emotional impact.

Without a doubt, Hillbarn's Executive Artistic Director Don Demers has had a heyday of a good time directing this Mamma Mia!, and it shows in every scene and number. Zoë Swenson Graham's choreography is packed with those seventies disco moves that would now bring back spasms to some of us who once believed we were as smooth, snazzy, and sexy as this large cast is whenever they take to the stage. The costumes of Y. Sharon Peng are a plethora of often rib-ticklingly funny beach and resort wear as well as the kind of glitz-glowing, bell-bottomed, short-skirt outfits that recall the era of Saturday Night Fever. Together, these three create scenes both ridiculously funny (like dancing snorkelers in floppy fins in "Lay All Your Love on Me") and Las Vegas spectacular (the full-cast, extravaganza encore finale of "Mamma Mia, "Dancing Queen," and "Waterloo").

The only part of this overall fabulous production that got in my way was the choice to use recorded music. From the moment the "Overture" begins, there is a stark reality that we are listening through speakers to non-live music. Throughout the evening, there are also moments when it is not clear what is real and what is recorded as to background voices that sometimes intrude as they accompany the onstage singers. At times, the sound balance of the recording is also not what it should be to allow the live singers to be heard and appreciated in totality (although, fortunately, this improved as the evening progressed at the performance I attended). In the past, Hillbarn's musicals have been impressively accompanied by live bands and orchestras. I personally would have preferred this production not try to be so true to the recordings we all are accustomed to hearing on CDs and instead provide a live score of some sort.

That said, for anyone who is a fan of ABBA and who likes the silliness but heartfelt fun of Mamma Mia!, this production will not disappoint but will instead dutifully delight from the beginning to the finale of the audience dancing at their seats and in the aisles.

Mamma Mia!, through May 26, 2019, at Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 East Hillsdale Boulevard, Foster City CA. While all shows are currently sold out, the box office is taking requests for waiting lists and will call patrons as tickets become available. Call 650-349-6411 or visit for more information.