AP NEWS

Great Lakes Theater finds the emotional core amid the camp and glitter of ‘Mama Mia!’ (review)

October 3, 2018

Great Lakes Theater finds the emotional core amid the camp and glitter of ‘Mama Mia!’ (review)

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Like an aging drag queen shelving her sequin stiletto boots and heading into retirement, “Mamma Mia!,” the ode to 20th-century Swedish pop, ended its 14-year run on Broadway in September 2015.

On the way to a senior condo project in San Tropez, she treated us to “a farewell tour” that shimmied into Playhouse Square in March 2016.

We should have known better. The likelihood of “Mamma Mia!” forever bowing out of the pop culture scene is roughly equal to RuPaul developing an allergy to all things feathered and going into insurance.

For fans, this is Nirvana; for detractors, anathema. But even those who begin blinking out distress signals with their eyelids at the first few bars of “S.O.S” should find something to appreciate in “Mamma Mia!” at Great Lakes Theater.

And the enthusiasts? They’ll swoon, as evidenced at the sold-out opening-night house when they shouted lyrics and encouragement to performers, and wandered the lobby during intermission draped in colorful boas.

That’s largely because the production, directed by Victoria Bussert, feels so joyful. As the chorus of “Dancing Queen” famously goes, those in the cast – a spicy mix of Great Lakes company members and students in Bussert’s musical theater program at Baldwin Wallace University – seemed to be having the time of their lives.

This is no small point. Watching actors who would rather be having dental implant surgery than belting ABBA while wearing velvet bellbottom jumpers would be as fun as sitting beneath the drill ourselves.

The mother of all jukebox musicals deserves props for having an actual plot, one powered by female relationships. There is the bond between Donna (Jillian Kates), the owner of a taverna on an idyllic Greek island, and daughter Sophie (Kailey Boyle), the child she raised there on her own.

Also thick as 1970s mascara are Donna and her longtime friends Rosie (Laura Welsh Berg) and Tanya (Jodi Dominick), a duo who drop in, screeching, on the eve of the Sophie’s white wedding to Sky (Jake Slater).

Back in the day, before babies and divorces, Donna and her besties were in a girl group – Donna and the Dynamos. As luck would have it, those disco-era costumes are in a trunk in Donna’s bedroom, waiting to be liberated for Sophie’s bachelorette party. Even luckier? Some 20 years later, they still fit like a sweaty ’lil spandex glove.

In a complication worthy of a Shakespeare comedy, unbeknownst to Donna, Sophie has mined Donna’s diary and struck gold: the names of three men from her mother’s past who might be the father she never knew. Sophie has invited all of them to her nuptials in the hope of discovering her true pa.

A game of Musical Daddies ensues, along with the rekindling of an old flame: Donna had flings with headbanger Harry (Eric Damon Smith) and explorer Bill (Alex Syiek), but she fell hard for architect Sam (Nick Steen).

The production is saturated in color – from the Aegean blue and terra cotta orange of Jeff Herrmann’s set to its multiracial ensemble, a welcome development for any classic theater company. Tracy Christensen’s rainbow-bright costume design is punctuated by fanny packs, denim vests and Mom jeans to remind us of the fashion desert of the 1990s, when the musical takes place.

But Christensen’s greatest creations are the dragtastic looks of Donna and her Dynamos that harken back to days when groups like ABBA and the Bee Gees ruled the airwaves – midriff bearing, fringed, shiny wonders.

Those perfectly cast Dynamos are as cheeky as their wardrobes and responsible for “Chiquita” and “Dancing Queen,” two of the most infectious back-to-back numbers of the production.

Rosie and Tanya try to cheer up a glum Donna, undone by the sudden appearance of her exes. The women play dress-up and cut up (Tanya uses a bottle of hairspray to ape a portion of the male anatomy just below the belt) and slowly coax Donna out of her funk. She can’t help herself – the girl was born to boogie.

On Saturday, when Donna finally jumped to her feet to join them in an old routine, it was as though an electric charge had shot up through the theater floor, sending toes tapping.

Also impossible to resist: “Does Your Mother Know,” a number highlighting the athletic and steamy choreography of Jaclyn Miller and the sinuous, sultry force that is BW’s Warren Egypt Franklin as “Pepper,” one of Donna’s skimpily clad employees in white short-shorts. (The show is set on a toasty Greek island, after all.) For the thrice-divorced Tanya, Pepper is but a plaything, and that’s fine by Pepper.

I can chat with you, baby Flirt a little, maybe Does your mother know that you’re out?

As Pepper snaked around a reclining Tanya, the ensemble leapt and tumbled and gyrated around them in a fevered whirl, and I’d swear I saw one or two of those boas used as a fan.

As with any repertory company having to mold itself to different genres, some voices are better than others. Here, the standouts are Boyle, a junior at BW whose performance was that of a star being born, and Kates, who nearly stopped the show with the fierce passion she brought to “The Winner Takes It All.”

Kates delivered the song’s climax kneeling on a bed in a sky-blue kimono, arms outstretched as though in crucifixion. Steen, as Sam, the man she believes left her behind to marry another, is perched on the edge of the mattress in front of her, head in his hands. It’s a real moment, filled with rage and regret.

This is also why this show is so good; it’s confident enough to indulge in the campy nostalgia that sells tickets and, at the same time, tap into the bone-deep sorrow of lost love and wasted years.

Here we go again, yes, but this “Mamma Mia!” has something more to say about the lives and loves of women than productions that have come before – enough reason to take those sparkly boots off the shelf and come out of retirement.

REVIEW

Mamma Mia!

What: A Great Lakes Theater production of the musical featuring the songs of ABBA. Music and lyrics by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus. Some songs with Stig Anderson. Book by Catherine Johnson. Originally conceived by Judy Craymer. Musical direction by Matthew Webb. Directed by Victoria Bussert.

When: In repertory with “Pride & Prejudice” through Sunday, Nov. 11.

Where: Hanna Theatre, Playhouse Square, Cleveland.

Tickets: $15-$89; students sit in any seat at any performance for $13. Visit greatlakestheater.org or call 216-241-6000.

Approximate running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes (including intermission).

AP RADIO
Update hourly