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BWW Review: Vibrant, Fun-Filled MAMMA MIA! Dances Its Way to La Mirada

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Buoyed by a joyful, enthusiastic cast singing and dancing to familiar ABBA songs, La Mirada aims to dazzle and entertain with this proven crowdpleaser.

Mamma Mia - La Mirada Theatre 2021
Candi Milo, Marie-France Arcilla and Emily King Brown

Some stage shows just refuse to retreat into the sunset, and one of those is MAMMA MIA!, that enduring, unapologetically giddy jukebox musical, now getting a fun, vibrant new staging at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, under the direction of T.J. Dawson. With performances continuing in the OC-adjacent city of La Mirada, CA through Sunday, November 21, this infectiously peppy show---featuring a book by playwright Catherine Johnson that wraps around songs made famous by ABBA---is certainly an invigorating way to welcome theatergoers back for live, in-person performances, especially those looking for a silly, non-serious respite from our current realities. If you're looking for some cute laughs paired with some terrific singing and dancing, this show should fit the bill.

For those few of you left out there who have never heard of it (or even its kitschy movie adaptation starring Meryl Streep!), MAMMA MIA! (exclamation point intended) is a bonafide, demographic-defying crowdpleaser that cleverly repurposes the hits-filled discography of Swedish Pop mega group ABBA for an entertaining bit of broad musical comedy silliness that's light on smarts but chockfull of smile-inducing, nostalgia-baiting moments that keep many audiences coming back for repeat helpings.

So how does La Mirada's production keep things fresh for returnees, while keeping newbies engaged? Well, the fun of MAMMA MIA! is not just solely reliant on its chart-topping soundtrack; the show also requires its assembled ensemble of talented misfits to sing, dance, and ham it up with no abandon. The sometimes cheesy, though still undeniably haha funny material knowingly winks at itself all the time, and thus, requires interpretation that keeps the mood continuously lighthearted, even during those precious few scenes when actual, genuine heartbreak or turmoil is encountered (don't worry, these moments last, like, 5-6 minutes tops, then it's right back to the antics).

Thankfully, I'm happy to report that La Mirada's production has found a winsome cast that accomplishes this with ease. Not only do they look like a tight-knight, well-rehearsed ensemble, everyone on stage seems joyfully invested in every lyric, every dance move, and every exaggerated acting choice they make. I also particularly enjoyed the show's two leading ladies, Marie-France Arcilla and Gabriela Carrillo, who play the show's central figures, single American mom (and former girl-group front-woman) Donna, who owns and runs a resort on a tourist-heavy Greek isle, and her dreamy-eyed, newly betrothed 20-year-old daughter, Sophie, respectively.

Like a topic of a vintage episode of The Maury Povich Show, MAMMA MIA! focuses mostly on the "mystery" that is the true identity of Sophie's father, whom she has never met (her mom never speaks of him, so, naturally, Sophie's got some questions).

Mamma Mia - La Mirada Theatre 2021
The cast of La Mirada Theatre's MAMMA MIA!

It is the summer of 1999 (a lifetime ago, right?!) and young Sophie is about to get married in less than 24 hours to her mop-haired hottie fiancé Sky (Taubert Nadalini), which is, naturally, the perfect opportunity to find out definitively who her father could be (so, uh, he could escort her down the aisle, perhaps?).

After discovering her mom's old diary from two decades (!) ago, Sophie was able to deduce that the baby daddy could be one of three possible men that her rather busy mom went on dates with: posh Brit banker Harry Bright (Danny Bernardo), "macho" Australian adventure writer Bill Austin (Michael Cavinder), or dashing American architect Sam Carmichael (Eric Kunze). Rather than, oh, I don't know... make an impassioned plea to her mom to reveal her dad's identity (and, maybe use her wedding as a motivator for a confession), Sophie decides to send each ex-lover an invitation instead---but signs them in Donna's behalf.

The postal service in Greece in 1999 must've been suuuuper fast, because lo and behold, the three recipients of Sophie's invitations have all shown up at the resort in record time, all looking to reunite with Donna. Sophie, for her part, would rather spring the surprise on her mom on the day of the wedding, but as with all such situations, things don't all always go to plan. Donna, as expected, is devastated and livid when she discovers that all three of her exes are back.

And thus begins the sitcom-flavored silliness of MAMMA MIA! which finds all three men discovering they could possibly be Sophie's dad, and with one man in particular especially intent on winning Donna's heart back despite multi-level misunderstandings and, yes, the passage of time.

Elsewhere, Sophie's wedding is also a chance for a reunion of Donna with her best gal pals---the bawdy, wealth-draped Tanya (scene-stealer Emily King Brown) and nerdy spitfire Rosie (the very funny Candi Milo)---who also happen to be her former bandmates in their all-girl trio Donna and the Dynamos. The two ladies have arrived just in time to console Donna and her dramatic new predicament.

La Mirada Theatre - Mamma MIa!
Eric Kunze and Gabriela Carrillo

Along the way, Sophie's BFFs Ali (Joi D. McCoy) and Lisa (Momoko Sugai) throw her a bachelorette party, while Sky's rambunctious buddies Eddie (Dillon Klena) and the curiously-named Pepper (Rodrigo Varandas) throw him a stag party. Both celebrations eventually mesh into a night of combined debauchery---and some awesome dance numbers (courtesy of the show's excellent choreographer Dana Solimando).

Colorful, outwardly zany, and just plain fun, La Mirada's MAMMA MIA! is reliably entertaining, and rekindles quite vividly why live theater has been thoroughly missed these past 18 months. Seeing all that boisterous dancing, joyful play-acting, and, of course, energetic singing reminds us audiences about the power of good live performances and the communal enjoyment of shared applause.

To be honest, MAMMA MIA! doesn't exactly rank as one of my automatic, go-to favorites in the plethora of live stage musicals I've personally experienced. But I can always say that I have had a relatively great time whenever I end up seeing it again, particularly when the show is performed by a great ensemble cast. Not only is La Mirada's production fun to watch (and listen to) purely as an audience member, it also seems like a really fun show to perform, judging from the palpable enthusiasm of its cast. During many parts of the show, I found myself looking at each individual cast member, even when not the focus of the specific scene, as they played their part(s) with gusto.

During my gaze, I even found sprinkles of diversity that I appreciated a lot. Yes, representation matters.

While I snickered a bit at some of those questionable (and, at times, disappearing) accents, the overall performances---singing, dancing, and acting---are uniformly admirable. I loved listening to Carrillo and Kunze sing their respective songs, while the diva trio of Arcilla, Brown, and Milo was a hoot whenever they perform, both as friends and as a girl group.

La Mirada Theatre - Mamma Mia!
Marie-France Arcilla and Gabriela Carrillo

I was especially impressed with Arcilla as Donna late in Act 2 when ongoing opening night audio issues eventually killed her wireless mic during an extremely dramatic pivotal point in the story. Enter her scene partner Kunze, armed with a handheld mic for her. She snatched it from him with such ferocity that it became part of her character's rage. Rather than let the whole technical kerfuffle trip her up, Arcilla made the improvised use of the handheld mic almost like an emotionally-charged appendage that fueled her character's raw emotions.

Maybe a bit of me was doing a mini cheer to myself during this entire sequence because I was so happy to see a fellow Filipinx succeed in a lead role amongst a mixed cast, and do so with such talent and grace (hey, casting directors, see...many of us can sing, so get more of us in the room, please), but I was mostly just impressed by how well she handled the situation like a pro. Heck, I think it even gave "The Winner Takes It All" some extra gravitas.

Aside from the awesome cast, the show's boldness extended to its technical traits as well. Musical Director Keith Thompson kept the orchestra sounding full and rousing, while Scenic Designer Stephen Gifford's mosaic-inspired sets---lit by lighting designer Jean-Yves Tessier---also make this MAMMA MIA! especially colorful and vibrant. Gone are the Broadway/National Tour sets that feature the expected blinding white-washed exteriors that are supposed to evoke seaside Greek buildings; instead we get bright, bold hues that fit the animated mood of the show much better.

Overall, these lyrics to the musical's title song says it all:

"Mamma Mia... Here I go again... My, my... How can I resist ya?"

La Mirada Theatre - Mamma Mia!
Candi Milo, Marie-France Arcilla and Emily King Brown

Well, resistance is futile, so to speak. I mean, sure, despite its corny machinations, an oh-so-predictable plot, and some peculiar character motivations, MAMMA MIA!, to be quite honest, still made me grin from beginning to end (I know, my mask was on the whole time, so you probably couldn't tell). And, ABBA---for all its high-cheesiness factor and global notoriety---really did put out some extremely well-crafted pop songs that burrow deep into your brain like an ear worm long after you've left the theater. If you're looking for a cheerful and entertaining stage musical featuring silly antics, exuberant dancing, and a really lively ensemble, go see this show!

Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ.

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Photos by Jason Niedle courtesy of La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts.

McCoy Rigby Entertainment and La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts presents MAMMA MIA! with music and lyrics by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, and some songs with Stig Anderson, a book by Catherine Johnson, and was originally conceived by Judy Craymer. The production features musical direction by Keith Thompson, choreography by Dana Solimando, and is directed by T.J. Dawson.

The Cast for MAMMA MIA! features Marie-France Arcilla, Eric Kunze, Gabriela Carrillo, Taubert Nadalini, Danny Bernardo, Michael Cavinder, Emily King Brown, Candi Milo, Joi D. McCoy, Momoko Sugai, Rodrigo Varandas, Dillon Klena, and Dylan Pass. The Ensemble will feature Chris Bona, Gillian Bozajian, Markesha Chatfield, Juan Guillen, Brandon Halvorsen, Michael James, Ashley En-Fu Matthews, Jonathan McGill, Isabella Olivas, Christina Papandrea, Kelly Powers-Figueroa, Hannah Jean Simmons, Scott Spraags, Fana Tesfagiorgis and Adam Turney.

MAMMA MIA! features Scenic Design by Stephen Gifford; Lighting Design by Jean-Yves Tessier; Projection Design by Jon Infante; Sound Design by Cricket S. Myers; Costume Design by Winfield Murdock; Hair/Wig/Makeup Design by Kaitlin McCoy; Properties Design by Kevin Williams, Melanie Cavaness and Gretchen Morales.

Performances of the McCoy Rigby Entertainment presentation of MAMMA MIA at The La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts continue through Sunday, November 21, 2021. The theater is located at 14900 La Mirada Boulevard in the city of La Mirada. Parking is Free. For tickets, visit www.LaMiradaTheatre.com or call (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310.


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