BWW Review: Gorgeous MAMMA MIA! Takes the Chaffin's Barn Stage in High-Flying Style
If not for the fact that she is already one on Broadway, it could be said that Rachel Potter's performance in Mamma Mia! - which opened last night at Nashville's historic Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre - was, without doubt or without danger of fulsome exaggeration a "starmaking turn." With a glorious voice and stage presence to spare, Potter's Sophie seized control of the opening night audience from the very first moment she stepped onto the stage, never relinquishing control for one second, even when sharing the stage with the redoubtable Martha Wilkinson, the undisputed queen of musical theatre in Music City.
Cast by director Bradley Moore, who adds another hit to his already starry resume, as mother and daughter, Wilkinson and Potter deliver a master class of epic proportions for an audience thrilled and delighted to see the iconic theater reestablishing its place among Nashville's entertainment mecca by presenting shows that have been recent hits on Broadway and transforming them with the power of local players at the top of their game.
As Donna, Wilkinson shines like a diamond against the Aegean blues and creamy neutrals that display a calming visual upon which the mega-musical hit is set. The seventh longest running show on Broadway, Mamma Mia! (which debuted on the main stem in the aftermath of 9/11 in 2001 and gave audiences there a surefire antidote for what ailed them) will likely be typified in years to come as a show representative of its era, as much a part of the musical theater canon as the masterpieces of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Kern, Berlin, Porter and more of their ilk. Sure, it's a jukebox musical, but it's set to a score of ABBA - the Swedish super group whose worldwide domination of the musical charts is noteworthy - hits that will have audiences practically dancing in their seats, if not the aisles, in gleeful abandon. Even if you don't count yourself among the millions of ABBA fans all across the globe, you'll find it difficult to not completely give yourself over to the music and merriment that ensues from the very first notes played.
Both Potter and Wilkinson lead the accomplished cast with confident aplomb, while Everett Tarlton's eye-popping and flashy choreography ensures a memorable production unlike any seen previously on a local stage. His dance steps are the perfect evocation of the popper-fueled, decadent disco era during which most of these songs were first heard by audience members of a certain vintage. (I speak from experience here, gentle readers.) The two women are generous performers, giving their assorted co-stars plenty of room to shine and giving them well-thought-out characters opposite whom to play.
Although sound issues were abundant on opening night and energy seemed a bit muted - easy to understand given the hectic pace of two weeks of rehearsal that included tech week and an opening day matinee that preceded the main event - Mamma Mia! at Chaffin's Barn is so much fun to watch you may find yourself wanting to watch it more than once. Moore's vision for the show, which hews close enough to what audiences might have expected after multiple productions have toured through Nashville to ensure a sense of the familiar, he makes some intriguing choices that render the show somehow fresher and perhaps even more appealing. Act One moves at a brisk clip, making its way to the 15-minute intermission almost before you realize it, while the second stanza seems to drag a bit what with its abundance of exposition and somewhat melancholic moments of storytelling by Catherine Johnson's book.
To be honest, never before have I left a performance of Mamma Mia! thinking about how it really is Sophie's show instead of the ensemble piece it has always seemed to be. That takes nothing away from Moore's stellar ensemble, rather it's simply a tribute to Potter's superb performance, which is beautifully sung and impressively acted in a way that rivets attention to her. Perhaps even more notable is that she holds her own with Wilkinson, who commands the stage like no other, and the offstage camaraderie of the two women is reflected onstage by the palpable chemistry that would have you believe they are actually mother and daughter.
The plot of Mamma Mia! - which every theater-goer worth his or her salt should know by now - focuses on a young bride-to-be's efforts to divine which of her mother's three former lovers might indeed be her birth father (or "sperm donor," as Sophie jokes in an early scene with her two besties Ali and Lisa, played by Gracie McGraw and Meggan Utech in the remarkable Chaffin's Barn cast that's filled with local stage favorites). When all three men accept the invitation to attend Sophie's nuptials on the Greek island where her mother Donna owns a taverna, the stage is set for hijinks of the screwball variety that are underscored with some real emotional moments to tug at the audience's collective heart.
The score, expertly played by music director Kelsi Fulton's five-member band (which features Dan Kozlowski, Jeff Lisenby, William "Tiger" Fitzhugh and Bobby King), includes not only the title tune, but other ABBA greats like "SOS," "The Name of the Game," "Dancing Queen," "Super Trouper," "Take A Chance on Me" and my personal favorite, "Waterloo" that's save until the raucously fun and thoroughly uproarious finale that comes after the entire company has taken its bows. You'll notice there are some other ABBA hits missing, but we're confident many of them will be included in the score for the upcoming musicalization of Muriel's Wedding that's happening in Australia soon enough.
As Donna's two best pals - and the "Dynamos" to her, well, "Donna" in a past life - Jenny Norris Light and Cat Arnold swap scene-stealing responsibilities back and forth, with each woman ideally cast. Light's the man-hungry Tanya and Arnold is the proto-feminist Rosie (everyone's favorite character in the show, based on personal and decidedly unscientific polling). Light's performance of "Does Your Mother Know" comes very near to stopping the show and her pairing with Will Pope, the flirtatious Pepper, is spot-on. Arnold struts her own formidable stuff in a completely engaging performance of "Take A Chance on Me" with her real-life husband David Arnold, who plays Bill, the one-third father of Sophie who's a travel writer/adventurer.
David Arnold, Greg Frey (as the fey, almost foppish, Harry Headbanger) and Geoff Davin as Sam Carmichael (the American architect who broke Donna's heart 20 years earlier and is most likely the genuine fatherly article) more than hold their own with the show's leading ladies and each man is given his musical moment during which to shine and deliver winning performances as Donna's late, lamented paramours.
Taylor Novak is fine, if somewhat bland (which is the fault of Johnson's book), as Sky, the guy who holds the key to Sophie's heart, while Austin Olive and Will Pope play his two best mates with enough charm and good looks to score with the other cast members and audiences, alike. The remainder of Moore's estimable ensemble, including Sarah Zanotti and Curtis Reed among them, populate the island with the requisite skill needed to keep audiences captivated during the two-and-a-half hour journey.
Jamie Lyn Scott's costumes are among the best we've seen in a local production ever - not matter if it's professional, community or academic theater - and her fashionable color palette is ideal for the aesthetics presented via Moore and Tarlton's simple but effective set design. Joy Tilley Perryman's props are, as per usual, right on-target and Daniel DeVault's lighting design seems inventive and more than just the typical lights up, lights down variety too often seen in local shows.
Mamma Mia! Book by Catherine Johnson. Music and lyrics by Benny Anderson and Bjorn Ulvaeus. Directed by Bradley Moore. Music direction by Kelsi Fulton. Choreography by Everett Tarlton. Presented by Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre. Through October 21. For details, call (615) 646-9977. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (with one 15-minute intermission).
About the show Broadway vet Rachel Potter stars with the nine-time First Night Award-winning Martha Wilkinson (a 2015 First Night Honoree) in the upcoming Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre production of Mamma Mia!, the hit musical set to a score of ABBA's biggest hits. Mamma Mia! runs September 7-October 21 at Nashville's iconic dinner theatre.
Opening on Broadway in October 2001 - just weeks after 9/11 - the musical provided a much-needed dose of escapism to a battered New York City theatre scene still reeling from the attacks of September 11. It went on to run for 14 years on the main stem, with some 5,773 performances to its credit. The North American touring production, which opened in Providence, Rhode Island, in 2002, continued until its final performance in St. Louis on July 30 of this year, racking up in excess of 4,000 performances along the way.
Starring Broadway veteran and former X Factor finalist Rachel Potter as Sophie and Martha Wilkinson as Donna, Mamma Mia! tells the comic story of bride-to-be Sophie and the hilarity surrounding her wedding on a Greek island paradise. The magic of ABBA's timeless songs propels this enchanting tale of love, laughter, and friendship, creating a trip down the aisle audiences will never forget!
Bradley Moore directs, with choreography by Everett Tarlton and music direction by Kelsi Fulton.
Chaffin's Barn's production of Mamma Mia! will include 30 performances, staged on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings, as well as Thursday matinees, with one special Sunday matinee on September 17. Reservations for Mamma Mia! are now available via www.ChaffinsBarnTheatre.com.
In addition to Potter and Wilkinson, the cast include Gracie McGraw, Meggan Utech, Jenny Norris-Light, Cat Arnold, Taylor Novak, Will Pope, Austin Olive, Greg Frey, David Arnold, Geoff Davin, Curtis Reed, Christina Candilora, Brett Cantrell, Anna Carroll, Heather Hershow, Jenna Pryor and Sarah Katherine.