BWW Review: Studio Tenn's 19-20 Season Opens With High-Spirited MAMMA MIA!
Aubrey, Urbanski and Searcy Lead Stellar Cast in Kern-directed Hit
When Mamma Mia! - the megahit musical with a score filled to brim with songs from the Swedish supergroup ABBA - premiered on Broadway in 2001, it seemed the contemporary evocation of "the best of times, the worst of times." Opening in previews barely a month after the events of 9/11, the future of the lighter-than-air musical confection seemed uncertain in the aftermath of that horrific date, yet somehow it proved to be the perfect antidote for audiences seeking a respite from the tribulations of real life.
Indeed, Mamma Mia!, the story of a young woman determined to discern the identity of her birth father from among three likely candidates, went on to a 14-year-run on Broadway and has proven since its closing to be wildly popular among regional, academic and community theaters. In fact, audiences in Middle Tennessee can take in two vastly different productions through September 8, including the 2019-20 season opening production from Franklin-based Studio Tenn.
Directed with his signature creative flair, boundless imagination and penchant for fun by Benji Kern, Studio Tenn's interim artistic director, Mamma Mia! features a stellar cast of performers bringing the show to life with the expected verve and energy that the ABBA score virtually demands. Led by Erica Aubrey as Donna and Emily Urbanski as her daughter Sophie, Studio Tenn's production is vibrant, colorful and energetic, tapping into the universal appeal of the music thanks to music director/conductor Stephen Kummer and his seven member band who perform the score with consummate professionalism and more than a little Disco-era panache.
Granted, I'm not the most objective of reviewers when it comes to Mamma Mia!: I have loved ABBA since way back in the 1970s when I first heard their music (and, truth be told, if I had a dollar for every night spent in bars dancing to their amazing catalogue of songs, I could be spending my old age in the Greek isles - had I invested wisely - instead of pretending to be there while seated inside Jamison Theatre, freakin' loving every minute of the show) and I've yet to meet a cast I haven't fallen in love with while they've transported me back to the days of my misspent youth. But having seen something like 572 productions of Mamma Mia! in my lifetime may make me something of an expert on the subject, so trust me when I say that Studio Tenn's version is as good as it gets.
Perhaps most notable about Studio Tenn's Mamma Mia! (the plot isn't so different from the 1968 movie Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell, which starred Gina Lollobrigida, even if that film is set in Italy and although "officially" the stage musical isn't inspired by it - the similarities are fun to behold), however, is its younger stars: the aforementioned Miss Urbanski as Sophie and Liam Searcy, perfectly cast as her fiancé Sky. Both students in the much-admired musical theatre program at Belmont University, where we've had the pleasure of watching the progress of their onstage careers, Urbanski and Searcy more than prove their mettle in Mamma Mia! - and neither of them have ever been better. Urbanski is terrific in the role that ideally shows off her musical theater talents (her dancing has never been better onstage) and Searcy takes on the mantle of leading man bona fides with his performance. Both young actors have names to remember and promising futures to follow, so mark my words: Emily Urbanski and Liam Searcy are going to be stars.
You won't be able to take your eyes off leading lady Aubrey, who coincidentally teaches in the musical theatre program at Belmont, who is terrific as Donna and commands the stage with her palpable stage presence. Her onstage chemistry with her co-stars - including Martha Wilkinson as Rosie, Melodie Madden Adams as Tanya and her real-life husband Miles Aubrey as Sam Carmichael, Geoff Davin as Bill and Shawn Knight as Harry Bright - keeps your eyes riveted on her throughout the two-and-a-half-hours of nonstop frivolity, which is underscored by a certain poignance by the actors' trust of one another.
Wilkinson and Adams are thoroughly believable as Donna's best pals and former back-up singers (even if the debate about who the star of the act really was - the name of their band was "Donna and the Dynamos") and each woman creates similarly memorable moments onstage. Likewise, as the men in Donna's life, Miles Aubrey, Davin and Knight are ideally cast and bring a sense of the authentic to the stage with their multi-faceted performances.
Casey Hebbel (as Lisa) and Meggan Utech (as Ali) provide strong support as Sophie's best friends, and Austin Querns creates an indelible impression as Eddie, while Hudson Snyder threatens to steal the show as Pepper.
Anna Perry's high-spirited choreography keeps the ensemble moving throughout the show, allowing audience members to relive their own disco nights, while the vocals of the company capture the aural sensibilities of ABBA, without sounding like some sort of karaoke-inspired knockoffs, thanks to Kummer's splendid musical direction.
Performed on a gorgeous set designed by Mitch White, which provides the perfect backdrop for the musical's setting on a picturesque Greek isle, the cast is clad in eye-popping costumes created by Blake Danford that complement the design aesthetic supplied by White's scenic design, illuminated by the artful lighting design by Stephen Moss.
Mamma Mia! Music and lyrics by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus and some songs with Stig Anderson. Book by Catherine Anderson. Originally conceived by Judy Craymer. Directed by Benji Kern. Musical direction by Stephen Kummer. Choreographed by Anna Claire Perry. Presented by Studio Tenn at Jamison Theatre, at The Factory in Franklin. Through September 8. For details, go to www.StudioTenn.com or call (615) 541-8200. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (with one 15-minute intermission).
Photos by MA2LA