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Review: Playful, Joyous MAMMA MIA! Rocks MSMT Stage

The electric, near ecstatic atmosphere in Brunswick's Pickard Theater last night more closely resembled that of a rock concert than a theatre company opening. For months in advance, the sold out box office has signaled the joyful anticipation of Maine State Music Theatre's new production of Mamma Mia! - one of the first regionally for the blockbuster Broadway hit. But anticipation aside, it is the delivery here that is the story: a stunningly executed, intelligently staged, deliciously performed rendition of the 2001 long running ABBA musical that transformed the intimate Pickard Theater into a boisterous celebration.

Long acclaimed for its production values, MSMT outdoes itself in this colorful, witty vision of Mamma Mia!, but at the same time that, amid all the glitz, the performance resonates with honesty and sympathetic storytelling. In his MSMT debut, director/choreographer Mark Martino proves to be a fresh, vibrant creative voice. He strikes the perfect balance between sendup and sincerity, fun and disarming sweetness. He cloaks the production in a sundrenched earthiness that exudes youthful, hedonistic, exuberance and draws comparably energetic performances from the cast. His choreography, which combines folkloric Greek elements with 70s disco, is foot tapping, kinetic, and dazzling from the sheer technical perspective. He also knows how to suggest the outrageous and tacky aspects of the period while still maintaining a level of genuine emotion. Make no mistake, Mamma Mia! Is a simple story, but Martino and his cast know how to tell it so as to make its significant moments count.

Music Director Samuel Bagala (with able assistance from Patrick Fanning and Ben McNaboe) leads the eight-piece orchestra with an idiomatic understanding of the score and a meticulous attention to all the layered details of ABBA's songs - the backup vocals, the harmonies, the textures all richly in evidence - nicely captured and balanced in Nate Putnam's sound design.

Charles S. Kading's glistening white and blue décor envelops the stage with Mediterranean warmth, wrapping the playing area in a circular scrim that conjures up water, sky, stars, and island magic. Within these confines he creates a cleverly designed rotating unit that serves as beach, tavern, and inn interiors, dotted with brightly colored furniture and props by Ashley Flowers. Vital to the design concept are Dan Efros' (with assistance from Ryan Joyner) stunning projections that play on the scrims - floating geometric shapes suggesting waves, clouds, trees, disco lights, and all manner of intangible kinetic energy that palpably affects the pulse of the show. Working seamlessly with these concepts, lighting designer Paul Black bathes the action in washes of pinks and purples, cerulean, terracotta, and ochres that evoke the distinctive ambiance of the Mediterranean.

Costume designer Jeff Hendry's garments (wigs by Gerard James Kelly) take on lives of their own. They are tactile and sensuous, theatrical and outrageous, at times tongue-in-cheek tacky, but always show stopping.

Cast from an abundance of fresh talent, the twenty-seven-person ensemble brings to life the colorful characters, giving them both comic and human dimensions. A Broadway veteran of the role of Donna Sheridan, Lauren Mufson radiates toughness ,tenderness, and class - a down-to-earth single mom who is navigating the often unpredictable waters of her life with as much practicality and humor as she can muster. A vocal powerhouse, Mufson easily convinces the audience that Donna has, indeed, been a "dancing queen," and she is equally arresting in the more nuanced moments such as the ironic lament, "The Winner Takes It All" and the wistful "Slipping Through My Fingers."

As her two Dynamos, Mylinda Hull makes a brassy, vivacious Rosie and Jennifer Swiderski a sultry seductive Tanya. The three dads nicely contrast and complement each other with Peter Simon Hilton as a gentlemanly Harry Bright, elegantly British but not without a spark of youthful adventure; Aaron Galligan-Stierle is a goofy and touching Bill Austin, and Ian Knauer an appropriately sincere and serious Sam Carmichael. All three do justice to their vocals and combine for a deliciously funny finale.

As the young lovers Chelsea Williams and Cory Jeacoma radiate passion and the vulnerability of their conflicting dreams, and their palpable chemistry makes the characters' dilemmas reaL. Williams is winsome in her solo "I Have a Dream," and Jeacoma lights up the stage with a heat and energy that add zest to Sky's essential nice guy simplicity. Rounding out the central figures, Neil Starkenberg gives Pepper a saucy sexuality and Mediterranean insouciance, and Mike Backes makes his brief appearance as Father Alexandrios count.

The seventeen-person ensemble of singers and dancers* [see list below] add immeasurably to the entire tapestry. They are superlative dancers - stylish, athletic, sometimes acrobatic, and technically adroit - and they grasp the vocal style beautifully. Thanks to their polished work as individual performers who then coalesce into a dynamic whole, the six-minute finale becomes a jubilant celebration - layering one more visual, vocal, and choreographic treat upon another until the audience is on its feet swaying and singing along in what can only be described as collective euphoria.

With only one more production to go this 2016 season, MSMT can pride itself on delivering one unqualified success after another. From the intimate intensity of Ghost, to the epic scope of Evita and Fiddler, to a complete gear change for Mamma Mia!, MSMT continues to astonish with its adventurousness and incredible artistic range. No small part of this can be attributed to the casting skills and artistic leadership of Curt Dale Clark and Stephanie Dupal, who continue to challenge themselves and inspire their company and their audiences to ever higher standards of achievement. If one had to pinpoint a single ingredient responsible for the theatre's remarkable artistic success in the past four seasons, it might be integrity - integrity of quality, integrity of style, and that certain indefinable essence that signifies a wholeness of vision and uncompromising excellence.

*Mamma Mia! Ensemble: Taylor Brodard, Alex Drost, Phil Colgan, Giovanni DiGabriele, Megan Flynn, Berkley Jones, Emily Kelly, Marty Lauter, Kyle Laing, Paul Louis Lessard, Heather Morgan, Haley Ostir, PJ Palmer, Lexi Rabadi, Matty Rickard, Bethany Ann Tesarck, Katie Whittemore

Photos courtesy MSMT, Ben McKenna, photographer

Mamma Mia! Runs August 10-27 at MSMT's Pickard Theater, 1 Bath Rd., Brunswick, ME 207-725-8769

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