BWW Review: MAMMA MIA! at Performing Artists Repertory Theatre (PART): The Vocals Take it All
The best surprises come in small packages. In this case, MAMMA MIA! at the Performing Artists Repertory Theatre (PART) turns a compact space into a big musical that is bursting with singable songs delivered by superlative voices.
MAMMA MIA!, a jukebox musical based on the music of 1970s Swedish pop group ABBA, composed by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaes, opened at the PART in the old Crossroads Mall on January 31. Some people admittedly don't care for juke box musicals because the plot is contrived to fit the songs. I get that. And in this case, it's true. The story is not believable. But who cares? The music is so good that you can make allowances for the silly but fun book by British playwright Catherine Johnson.
Donna Sheridan (Mackenzie Dehmer) lives with her daughter Sophie (Evelyn Hill) on a Greek island. Twenty year old Sophie is about to get married to her handsome fiance', Sky (Danny Denenberg) and wants to have a white wedding where her father walks her down the aisle. The problem is: she doesn't know who her father is. When she finds her mother's diary, she discovers that there are three possible candidates for fatherhood . . . Sam Carmichael (Chris Berger), Bill Austin (Marcus Benzel), and Jon Hickerson (Harry Bright). Sophie writes to each of these men and invites them to her wedding without her mother's knowledge. All three accept.
Also invited to the wedding are Donna's former Dynamos bandmates, Rosie Mulligan (Analisa Peyton) and Tanya Creshman (Charlotte Hedican). These friends provide advice, support, and laughs as they put on a show for Sophie and her friends, wrapped in their old Spandex costumes and singing in glorious harmony.
While the story is silly, the music is "super trouper." Music director, Jennifer Novak Haar leads an incredible band from the rear of the theater. Using overhead speakers, the sound comes through loud and clear throughout. Novak Haar also plays keys with Laurel Mack and Lillian Kraft. Colin Duckworth and Ben Eisenberger are on guitar, Mark Haar is on bass, and Brandon Armstrong on drums.
Tom Bertino's set design is minimal. There are curtains and the suggestion of windows with shutters on the back wall. A few chairs and blocks are positioned on stage and are moved to create a bed. An outline suggesting a Greek taverna is mounted on either side of the stage. This is stark simplicity.
Costumes were begged, borrowed, and purchased online. None fit particularly well and there are notable wardrobe malfunctions. This is not a high budget production, but you know what? It matters not in the least because the cast is so darn good, you don't need the embellishments that go with a big staged show.
From her opening note, Evelyn Hill is a marvel! She can sing like nobody's business and has the moves to boot. In addition to being both a singer and dancer, she performs with a natural ability uncommon to an untrained actress. Her facials are so expressive. She is one of THE best performers in Omaha right now.
Mackenzie Dehmer plays Donna with a feminist anger that mellows over the timeline of the show. When she interacts with Sophie in the bridal dress scene, they exude a palpable loving connection. Tears slipped down my face as she sang "Slipping Through My Fingers" with the tender and bittersweet nostalgia of a mother who realizes that her daughter is growing up. What mother can't relate? Dehmer's "The Winner Takes it All" is powerful and moving. These two songs alone are worth the price of admission.
"The Dynamos," Hedican and Peyton, earn their band moniker. Hedican sings "Does Your Mother Know" to Pepper (James Mankle) who is simultaneously amusing and annoying as the hotblooded youth trying unsuccessfully to seduce the thrice divorced socialite. Peyton pulls out her own come hither tricks on Bill Austin (Benzel) in "Take a Chance on Me," which pokes fun at finding love. Both Hedican and Peyton are wonderful singers whose voices blend beautifully.
Denenberg is a fresh-faced Sky who, although he doesn't get a lot of solo time to show off his pleasing voice, shows he can act with the best of them. His chemistry with Hill is magnetic. They are young and in love.
The three potential fathers of the bride are great fits for their diverse characters. Jon Hickerson draws on his experienced showmanship with strong vocals and a professional stage presence as the refined British banker, Harry "the Headbanger" Bright. His accent is consistent and believable. Chris Berger as Sam Carmichael, an architect who still dreams of building a taverna, proves why Donna has had trouble forgetting him over the past 20 years. Berger is utterly charming with engaging mannerisms and a cute set of dimples. A rumpled Marcus Benzel is delightfully unassuming and likable as adventurer Bill Austin. These three man nail their characters and are truly melodic as they harmonize.
The ensemble multitasks as a lovely chorus off to the side of the house, stage hands as they move about set pieces, and all around entertaining dancers. Choreographer Amber Wilson has put her skills as a dancer herself to good use.
Director Gordon Cantiello has done the impossible. He took a chance on a huge musical and adapted it to a small space without a lot of money, money, money. He made it a winner. I do, I do, I do urge you to go see this small but mighty production. You'll thank them for the music.
Performances: FEB 1, 6, 7, 8, 14 at 7:00 pm and FEB 1, 2, 8, 9, 15, 16 at 2:00 pm.
For tickets call: (402) 706-0778
The PART is located in the Crossroads Mall at 7400 Dodge Street. Park in the parking garage behind the mall and enter through the doors across the driveway.
Photo Credit: Jennifer Novak Haar