BWW Review: MAMMA MIA! is the Happiest Show in Town!
If you notice an inordinate number of smiles in the east end of the Valley, chances are that they're on people who have seen Desert Theatreworks newest show, Mama Mia! The musical includes 25 songs by the Swedish rock group Abba, and every one of them is so enjoyably recognizable that after the first measure or two, viewers think "Oh, yeah. That one!" You'll amaze yourself at how many of them you recognize, and what disco-ball memories they conjure forth!
The story involves Donna (Suzie Wourms), a 40-ish mother who runs a small hotel on a Greek island. She is preparing for the wedding of her daughter Sophie (Susannah Vera), who is marrying her boyfriend Sky (Noah Arce). She invites two of her lifelong friends, Tanya (Tiffany Lobue) and Rosie (Kelly McDaniel), to the island to join in the celebration. They had been a singing trio a couple of decades previously, and they find plenty of occasions to sing again during the course of the show
Sophie has never known who her father was, but has recently discovered her mother's diary from 21 years ago. She learns that her mom had affairs with three different men around the period when her life began, and almost certainly one of them is her father. She decides to invite all three of them to her wedding, signing their invitations as Donna, her mother. The men are Harry (Mark Demry), Bill (Steve Portoles), and Sam (Shel Safir).
Donna does the heavy lifting in the show, involved with at least half of the songs either as soloist or as part of a duet or trio. Suzie Wourms shoulders the load well, and whether as a mother with daughter, friend joining friends of over 20 years, or past lover with men she hasn't seen in decades, she's delightful. I noticed that the women sitting around me on opening night seemed to empathize with her, especially during the raucous machinations she shares with her girlfriends behind closed doors.
For me, one of the biggest delights of the evening was Valley newcomer Susanna Vera as Donna's daughter, Sophie. She projects an inner light while calming down her mother or scheming with the three men who are potentially her father, and her singing voice is pleasant. Her love interest, Noah Arce, is a familiar face at numerous Valley theatres, and musical theatre seems to come as easy to him as walking down the street. However, he seems to feel that smiling ear-to-ear makes him more likeable, rather than relying on his good looks and stature to make the girls (and subsequently, the audience) come to him. Still, he's always a delight.
Top marks go to the men who are the possible dads. We don't get to meet them in depth until the second act when each of them has solos. Any of those voices could easily carry leading man duties, and it's interesting that Donna would have been attracted to such different men 21 years previously. "Donna and the Dads" would be an interesting play by itself!
The ensemble - friends of the bride, employees of the hotel, hotel guests and the citizens of the island of Kalokairi - are a lively bunch, thanks to enthusiastic choreography by Stacy Casaluci-Grenrock. At the slightest hint of another Abba number, they pile onstage with arms waving and booties shaking. Desert Theatreworks has a terrific training program for kids of all ages (Kidsworks), and a lot of them have segued over to the mainstage. It will be great when some of them are a bit older, because right now, most of the ensemble seem to be of high school age.
Director Daniela Ryan has done an outstanding job of keeping the stage alive. During many scenes, she has hotel staff carrying luggage, serving and collecting drinks, or guests wandering through the hotel while dialogue scenes are going on downstage. This not only gives us visual interest; it makes it less obvious that we're building up to an ensemble number when the ensemble starts walking on. We are already used to people entering and exiting the stage for various hotel tasks. She has also made great use of the rather small stage, including placing several key moments at the landing at the top of a staircase, and bringing other moments all the way downstage onto an extension of the stage.
Daniel Gray's set design is effective and evocative. It is primarily the courtyard of the hotel, though occasionally a couple of panels revolve to take us to a hotel room, a stage or a church. I especially liked the full stage steps that he added to the front of the stage so that the ensemble could quickly enter and exit from the auditorium. Lighting Designer Phil Murphy seemed to take special delight in the opportunity to dig out his disco lights, including a terrific mirror ball. The downside was that occasionally the ensemble was a bit murky to allow the disco lights to be seen.
Having seen the show last night, Abba songs have been racing through my mind all morning, and that's a good thing. Just hearing the songs of Abba in a darkened room is pleasant. Hearing them delivered by the joyous cast of DTW's Mama Mia is a true delight, and even if you don't get up to dance, your toes will almost certainly be tapping!
Mama Mia plays for three weekends, through November 3. Tickets and further information are available at www.dtworks.org.
Coming up are Agatha Christie's most famous work, Murder on the Orient Express, and you should book early for the Christmas family delight, Mary Poppins.
Photo by Paul Hayashi.