BWW Review: MAMMA MIA! deserves its uproarious applause at Theatre Baton Rouge

Photo by Haley Schroeck What's the next best thing to a vacation on a Greek island? Seeing "MAMMA MIA!," this season's last mainstage show at Theatre Baton Rouge that equals to two hours of musical fun.

Usually, I'm not a fan of this musical. The plot was explicitly created from songs by 70s music sensation ABBA, and while I love their music, the story falls short for me. Sure, I can imagine a masked man living beneath the Paris Opera House, and I can also believe in a red-headed orphan girl achieving her dreams, but truthfully MAMMA MIA! is a jukebox musical that is hard for me to swallow.

That being said, this production of MAMMA MIA! does not disappoint. TBR put on an engaging show bringing out the best of a simple story around music written by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, ABBA's two male counterparts.
The show includes 22 hit songs from the group's canon, placed at points that advance the story of young Sophie Sheridan, who decides to seek out her father so that he may walk her down the aisle during her wedding. However, Sophie was conceived after a series of one-night stands during her mother Donna's heyday as a pop singing sensation. Through some sleuthing, Sophie discovers three potential fathers but has no clue as to who is the real deal. Believing she'll know when she sees him, she invites all three men to her mother's ocean resort in Greece. Naturally, havoc ensues.

So what factors into the success of TBR's production? It doesn't hurt that there's a lively cast living out a big party onstage, but the ensemble displays exquisite harmony and joy. The amount of fun they are having is radiant. Co-Directors Jenny Ballard and Jack Lampert's vision pulled it all together and stage manager Caty Steward kept it moving quickly and efficiently. Some shows have pockets of dead time when scenes change, or actors enter late. With this one everything is upbeat and flowing.

Leading the cast are TBR lady veterans who have graced grand musicals in the past: Jennifer Ellis, Dana Todd Lux, and Celeste Angelle Veillon. In MAMMA MIA! the audience is treated to a talented powerhouse trio.

As Donna, Ellis is given a chance to show the depth of her talent. Her character's tough nature showed through her performance, but she displayed an equally appealing tenderness, especially during moments with Sophie. Her vocals, especially on "The Winner Takes It All," were beautiful.

As Donna's backup singers Rosie and Tanya, Lux and Veillon shine and are comedic highlights. "Dancing Queen" is a highlight for all three, but as a thrice-divorcee Veillon shows young Pepper (Mark Primeaux-Redmond) not to play with fire in "Does Your Mother Know," and Lux goes full out in "Take a Chance on Me" to try to change her luck in love. Their shenanigans will leave your sides splitting.

Victoria Rawlins is impressive as daughter Sophie. A newcomer to TBR, she draws sympathy from the audience as she tries to find the missing piece in her life and wins hearts with her expressive delivery and her natural stage presence. It's effortless to see why Sam (Jason Breaux), Harry (Don Hill) and Bill (Randall Trantham) all easily fall into the idea of being her father.

Each potential father is likable in their own ways and is strongly portrayed. As architect Sam, Breaux plays the true love of Donna's life and can melt icy exteriors through songs such as "S.O.S.," and "Knowing Me, Knowing You." Hill plays former-rocker-now-banker Harry, who delivers a tender "Our Last Summer," and Trantham portrays adventurist Bill. The audience is presented with an unbiased choice of who they would like to see Sophie walk down the aisle with, but Sophie's final decision is definitely the right one.

Tying it all together is a beautiful production team with music led by Terry Bowman, who makes ABBA's music his own. Leea Russell's stunning choreography is captivating and energetic. Kenny Mayfield's beautiful island set captures the beauty of Grecian islands, and Crystal Brown's glamorous costumes are delightful, especially the black lights outfits in Sophie's dream sequence and of the course the uproarious finale.

ABBA fan or not, you'll love hearing their iconic hits "Dancing Queen," "S.O.S.," "Mamma Mia," "Super Trouper" to name just a few. The audience for opening night was as loudly appreciative as I've ever seen at TBR. Word has spread about this hot ticket that each show of the original run has sold out. Additional shows have been added for June 30th and July 1st.
My advice: Don't miss out.

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