Review: Lipscomb University Theatre's MAMMA MIA Is Exactly What's Needed Onstage Now

Baker's Direction, Smith's Choreography and Weinstein's Music Add Up to a Remarkable Production

By: Nov. 06, 2021
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Review: Lipscomb University Theatre's MAMMA MIA Is Exactly What's Needed Onstage Now

In October 2001, Mamma Mia! opened on Broadway, just weeks after the horrific events of 9/11, and most pundits had little inkling that the show - a jukebox musical comprised of ABBA hits and the story of a young girl trying to divine the identity of her father from among three of her mother's suitors some 21 years earlier - would go on to become the ninth longest running musical in the history of the New York theatrical enclave. But Mamma Mia! was exactly what the theater-going public needed in the aftermath of an epoch-shattering and historic event: an enormously entertaining, fast-paced show set to an eminently hummable, danceable score of songs that could whisk them away to another time and place.

Now, in 2021, in the weeks after the equally horrific events of an 18-month pandemic-borne shutdown of theaters worldwide, a production of Mamma Mia! proves once again to be the panacea for a public desperate to find something to transport them to a fanciful world where cares may be forgotten and a sense of hope and downright exhilaration may pervade the spirit. Kudos to Beki Baker and her cohort of creative types at Nashville's Lipscomb University Theatre for choosing the musical - with music and lyrics by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus (and some songs by Stig Anderson) and a book by Catherine Johnson after a concept by Judy Craymer - to herald the return to live performance onstage on the Green Hills campus.

Review: Lipscomb University Theatre's MAMMA MIA Is Exactly What's Needed Onstage Now
Victoria Griffin, Emma Coren Harvey and
Christina Ray in Mamma Mia!

Baker and company, which includes a stellar cast of multi-talented students who are obviously having the time of their lives performing, give audiences exactly what the times call for with a spirited reiteration of Mamma Mia!, which for me seems fresh and invigorating even if it is the 11th production of the show I've seen since 2002. And while over the years, we've experienced some terrific shows from LUT, Mamma Mia! somehow seems the pinnacle of their success to date, with every element (not the least of which is Kari Smith's extraordinary choreography that is nothing short of inspired) contributing to the production's level of achievement. The show continues through Sunday, November 14, at Lipscomb's Collins Alumni Auditorium, so you should have plenty of time to catch a performance before it closes.

Andy Bleiler's scenic design is terrific, transforming the stage into a picture postcard replication of a small taverna on a tiny Greek island that provides the ideal physical setting for all the hijinks that are certain to ensue as Sophie Sheridan (winningly portrayed by Meghan Wombles) - the 20-year-old daughter of the taverna's owner, the former "'70s wild child" Donna Sheridan (Emma Coren Harvey gives a stunning performance) - prepares for her wedding by seeking to determine the identity of her dad, who could be one of three men who courted and bedded Donna some 21 years previous.

Despite what it may sound like, Donna (who describes her former self as a "good Catholic girl") wasn't the type to sleep around with a lot of guys. Instead, her romantic trysts with Sam Carmichael (an architect ably played by Austin Jeffrey Smith), Bill Austin (an adventurer enacted by Easton J. Curtis) and Harry Bright (an uptight British banker brought to life by Jonathan Thompson) were the result of real connections tempered by the vigor and promise of youth.

Now, on the precipice of what she hopes is a lifetime of wedded bliss, Sophie hopes to determine her parentage to give added stability to her relationship with her fiancé Sky (the silken-voiced Lorenzo Rivera). With the arrival of her two best friends Ali and Lisa (played by Audrey Venable and Prenda Mercado), as well as her mom's two best mates - and former co-stars in their girl-power trio Donna and the Dynamos - Tanya and Rosie (Victoria Griffin and Christina Ray, who very nearly walk off with the entire production what with their scene-stealing antics and noteworthy talents), Sophie ensures that the 24 hours until her wedding will be fraught with turmoil, conflict and a good many ABBA songs that will become earworms in the brains of every single person in the audience who find it hard to remain seated even as the rhythm of all those disco anthems take them over. Trust me, every boomer (and everyone else, no matter if they are 40 years or more their junior) in that immense opening night crowd will be humming "Dancing Queen" until they throw their backs out.

Review: Lipscomb University Theatre's MAMMA MIA Is Exactly What's Needed Onstage Now Director Baker and choreographer Smith - along with musical director David Weinstein and his impressive retinue of musicians in the pit who perform the ABBA score with notable zeal - keep the action moving along at a glorious pace, delivering a theatrical treat in the process that may leave you breathless. My advice? Let the kids onstage do the heavy lifting and allow yourself to revert to the disco-dancing whirling dervish you once were amid the safety of your own imagination.

Baker, Smith and Weinstein make grand use of the show's ensemble throughout the two hours of musical theater spectacle, with constant movement, electrifying choreography and background vocals which ensure that every ABBA megahit lands squarely where it is supposed to land. Baker successfully integrates her ensemble (no small feat there) throughout the show, giving chances for Alex Dee (Pepper), David Long III (Eddie), Ja'Naye Flanagan (whose stage presence requires your rapt attention every time she steps onto the stage), Mary Humphrey (the ensemble's dance captain) and Bryce Dunn (who is also Sky's understudy) to command attention and harness the power of the spotlight.

Review: Lipscomb University Theatre's MAMMA MIA Is Exactly What's Needed Onstage Now
Alex Dee and Victoria Griffin

Smith's choreography, which is the very best we've ever seen from her, among a plethora of impressive resume highlights, may be the production's strongest element and her eye-popping dancers strut their stuff to full effect throughout.

Baker shows her own expertise in the casting of the various roles, somehow making certain that the older characters actually exude a maturity that contrasts beautifully with the youthful exuberance of the younger characters - even while everyone onstage falls within a five-years-or-so age range. Suspension of disbelief is always vital when it comes to enjoying musical theater, but at least in that sense, audiences don't have to wear blinders.

Wombles is pleasantly self-assured as Sophie, demonstrating a remarkable ability to seize the moment and guide the play's ever-moving arc with finesse. She pairs wonderfully with the startling Harvey as her mother to create an authentic sense of mother/daughter closeness that is palpable. The two women handle their vocal load (let's face it, they sing a lot!) with ample talent, smooth control and a sense of joy that permeates every musical moment in which they shine.

As Sophie's trio of wannabe dads, Smith, Curtis and Thompson are supremely confident, with plenty of stage presence among them to spare. Smith's crystalline voice soars in his musical numbers, while Curtis seems most at home onstage with a personality made for that particular space, and Thompson brings a certain gangly charm to his featured moments.

Griffin is delightfully droll as the man-eating Tanya, while Ray shows off her comedic chops as the raucous Rosie. The two play well off each other and the various men in their sights as the play's action transpires, giving the two women an opportunity to steal the hearts of everyone involved, whether onstage or in the audience.

Review: Lipscomb University Theatre's MAMMA MIA Is Exactly What's Needed Onstage Now Bleiler's beautiful set is lighted perfectly by Stephen Moss, who gives the big production numbers a feeling of a rock concert that adds to the otherworldliness of those moments. Jacob Allen's sound design ensures everything is heard amid all the comings and goings, with the perfect balance during musical numbers, even while there were some opening night issues that detracted from the overall effect of his work. June Kingsbury's costumes are generally well done, if kind of a let-down truth be told, since she is hamstrung by the church-related school's dress code edicts that render her designs more matronly than anticipated.

Mamma Mia! Music and lyrics by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus. And some songs with Stig Anderson. Book by Catherine Johnson. Originally conceived by Judy Craymer. Directed by Beki Baker. Musical direction by David Weinstein. Choreography by Kari Smith. Presented by Lipscomb University Theatre. At Collins Alumni Auditorium, Nashville. Through November 14. For details, go to Running time: 2 hours, with one 15-minute intermission.

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