Mamma Mia!, Book by Catherine Johnson, Music and Lyrics by Benny Andersson, Bjorn Ulvaeus and Stig Anderson. Directed by Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
"Donna and The Dynamos: (right) Kara Mikula as Rosie, Lyn Philistine as Donna, Carla Woods as Tanya; photo: Heidi Nathanielsz
"You're going to need a wider aisle."
Christina Carlucci as Sophie, Patton Chandler as Sky; photo: Heidi Nathanielsz
This has been a week of catalogue musicals, oddly enough from the same era - the 1970s. First it was the BeeGees and "Saturday Night Fever" and now it's ABBA and "Mamma Mia!" Hands down, ABBA wins. On stage at Capital Repertory in Albany, NY the bright, pertinent, plot-pointed musical numbers that make this simple if silly show work so well help plant musical comedy feet into the stage at this chummy theater. A personable company of players under the musical direction of a talented conductor, choreographer, costumer and stage director on a perfect set forge a memorable production of a show that really only has charm and great songs going for it.
When I saw the show for the first time in London I thought it was a silly way to spend two hours giggling, glowing, humming along and forgetting my troubles. Afterward, after singing along with the company, waving my arms and dancing in the aisles, I rethought my reactions to the show. When the same things happened after the second viewing and the third, I knew that there was something very special going on here. Now, after my fourth edition of this show, after singing, waving my arms, wearing a feather boa and stamping my feet, all I can tell you is this: the show's a winner; the show's a fun-time, guaranteed.
It's the story of a wedding. Two young people are in love and plan to marry at a Taverna on a Greek island owned, and built, by the bride's mother. the girl is twenty and has a single parent, but wishes she had a father. The boy is handsome, a few years older, inventive and clever and as much in love with her as she is with him. The wedding is one day away when the play begins and the show ends with wedding blessings. What could be simpler or better than that. What? You'll have to see it to find out.
Christina Carlucci plays the girl, Sophie, named for an old lady on the mainland. Carlucci is lovely, sings well, is a romantic figure and a sweet actress. Her expression of her idealism is just what the part demands. As a love-interest for Patton Chandler, Sky, she is a partner to be desired and he is much the same. Handsome, graceful, the perfect swain, his virility obvious as he sensually pursues his Sophie through the plot, Chandler makes every song, every duet, into a pitching of woo and he easily wins and holds both Sophie and his audience. They make a lovely pair.
Her mother, Dionna Sheridan, is played with a mixture of gusto and angst by Lyn Philistine who seems almost too young to be a mother. Her secret, discovered by her bride-child, is her romantic past with three men, any one of whom could be that long-lost dad. They are played by a trio of handsome men: Gary Lindemann as Harry Bright (a former rock singer known as "Head-Banger"), Brian Calì as adventurer/author Bill Austin, and Gil Brady as American father Sam Carmichael. Each is surveyed, intereviewed and unveiled in the course of the play. All three men are supremely talented and equally attractive, each in a different way. Brady is a clear winner in the romance department with a sweetness that belies the character's intentions. When the play turns, finally, from one sort of romance to a different kind, Brady's Sam moves into position to become the owner of his own concepts. He does this very handily.
As Donna's two very different best friends the production sports two very different actresses. Rosie is played by Kara Mikula with a "lusty wench" aspect that is hilarious and touching simultaneously. She also sings and dances with remarkably rampant joy in hand and that gives her performance a wonderful edginess. Her counterpart, and counterpoint, Tanya, is played by Carla Woods who is on target for "favorite new actress" in my world. Seen earlier this season as an entire host of characters in "Shipwrecked" at Oldcastle Theatre in Bennington, Vermont, here, in Albany, she is the wealthy, much married ex-rocker who has every man in the palm of her hand and her hand in every cavity she can reach. She is sexy, funny, warm and wonderful and when she sings and dances the world settles into a cozy spot and watches her strut her stuff. Making the trip, just to see her perform, is worth every drop of gas you have to put into your tank.
Gil Brady as Sam Carmichael; photo: Heidi Nathanielsz
Lyn Philistine; photo: Heidi Nathanielsz
Among the very supportive players is Harris Turner as Pepper. Turner is a very dynamic and acrobatic dancer who turns tumbling into seduction. Taylor Hitt Mitchell gives a new meaning to low comedy and though he hasn't enough of it to deliver, what he puts across is rather wonderful. Keyboardist Josh D. Smith joins the company as Father Alexandrios for the wedding scene and does a neat job being perplexed.
But this show rides or falls on its Donna. She has to be sweet, loving, dangerous, disturbed, maternal, youthful, confused and constantly adorable through all those changes. She has to sing better than almost anybody and dance and wear those hideous seventies' outfits with style. Lyn Philistine manages to make all of that seem natural and real in a musical filled with hit songs she is too young to have ever heard growing up. She does it all and she does it extremely well. As angry betrayed woman she displays contained fire. As loving, doting and concerned mother, she shows us a range of emotional changes. As betrayed beauty she is nothing short of honest in every gesture and word. And when she sings, the stage comes to life. If an actress can deliver more than this, I cannot name a missing ingredient.
Freddy Ramirez's choreography is occasionally Fosse-esque for no reason but most of the time it is just what the show needs. He is as responsible for the sense of emotion in a number as any of the singers. Brian Prather delivers a wonderful set and Howard Tsvi Kaplan's costumes call up time, place and generation with absolute perfection. The lighting design work of Travis McHale keeps the show focused and alive, even in the difficult dream sequence that opens the second act.
If I was forced to go to a catalogue show this season and ignore another one, I would have made this ABBA spectacular my only choice. I know that as the company plays it, this show will only grow stronger and better and finer. It has a great starting point, a trio of Dancing Queens, a Dream, a Honey, Honey and in this instance, indeed, The Winner Takes It All.
Mamma Mia! plays at Capital Repertory Theatre, 111 North Pearl Street, Albany, NY, through August 13. For information and tickets call the box office at 518-445-7469 or go on line at capitalrep.org.