BWW Review: 5th Ave's MAMMA MIA Soars on Song but a Bit Light on Storytelling

BWW Review: 5th Ave's MAMMA MIA Soars on Song but a Bit Light on Storytelling
Sarah Rudinoff, Kendra Kassebaum,
and Lisa Estridge in Mamma Mia!
at the 5th Avenue Theatre.
Photo Credit: Mark Kitaoka

Yes, it's that big frothy ABBA musical "Mamma Mia" back again to get all the Dancing Queens shakin' it in the aisles. It's come through town several times and what fan hasn't seen the movie? But the national tour closed a year ago so how has this show not met its Waterloo? Well this is not a tour, this is our local big musical theater house, the 5th Avenue Theatre putting up their very own production. So, how does this local production stack up against that national ones? Let's dive in.

But first, and we won't spend too much time on this since if you don't know the show by now you never will, a brief rundown. Sophie and Sky (Eliza Palasz and Jordan Iosua Taylor) are getting married but Sophie wants her Dad at her wedding. Trouble is she doesn't know who that is. Even bigger trouble her Mom Donna (Kendra Kassebaum) isn't sure either. It could be one of three guys; Sam, Harry, or Bill (Paolo Montalban, Cobey Mandarino, and Matt Wolfe). So, Sophie secretly invites all three to the wedding and ABBA hilarity ensues. OK, that's enough of that, let's do this.

The show, for the most part, works and works well. If you like this goofy story jammed full of ABBA songs (and don't get me wrong, I do, I do, I do, I do, I do) then you'll have a fine time. There are a few glaring missteps, however. Director Bill Berry and choreographer Bob Richard do a fine job keeping the energy amped up to 11 while managing to keep the chaos in check for the most part but then in moments like Sophie's nightmare sequence it comes crashing down around them. There's so much going on with no rhyme or reason that you don't know where to look and the chaos takes over. Then there's the fact that when the actors stop singing, some of the delivery is quite stiff. We might attribute this to opening night jitters as it does loosen up a bit but it's there nonetheless. But we are not here for a story, we're here for ABBA-deliciousness and the cast brings that in spades.

Everyone gets their moments to shine in this one. And many of them seemed to recognize those moments and run away with them. Palasz and Taylor work well together as the young couple in love and their "Lay All Your Love on Me" number is delightful. Montalban is still as dashing as ever and seems not to have aged a day from his "Cinderella" days and his touching Dad moment with Sophie in "Knowing Me, Knowing You" is lovely. Mandarino only gets a few numbers in the show but what he gets are gold and if his "Our Last Summer" duet with Kassebaum is any indication he needs about 50 more numbers. What a voice! Matt Wolfe as Bill and Sarah Rudinoff as Donna's feminist friend Rosie could not be more perfectly suited and hilarious. And their performance of "Take a Chance on Me" brought down the house. I've seen several renditions of this one and finally I've seen one where it doesn't look like Rosie is trying to trap Bill while Bill is trying to flee for his life from the terrifying monster. THANK YOU! Lisa Estridge takes on the role of Donna's other friend Tanya, the wealthy, been married three times, diva, and she nails it! And talk about making a song your own. Damn! "Does Your Mother Know?" has never sounded hotter and looked hotter as well, I may add, thanks to some of that gorgeous Bob Richard choreography I was talking about. And of course, there's that outstanding overall music direction from R.J. Tancioco that keeps it all rockin'.

BWW Review: 5th Ave's MAMMA MIA Soars on Song but a Bit Light on Storytelling
Kendra Kassebaum stars as Donna Sheridan in
Mamma Mia! at the 5th Avenue Theatre.
Photo Credit: Mark Kitaoka

But as good as all of them were and that includes the high energy and achingly attractive ensemble (apparently this Greek island is only inhabited by REALLY pretty people) this show belongs to Kassebaum. Not only due to the fact that she's in a lead role but that she walks off with every moment she's in. We all know how good she is from her stunning turns in "Ragtime" or "Assassins" or "Come From Away" or "Wicked" just to name a few. And once again she outdoes herself by latching onto this role and taking it far beyond what anyone expects. Her voice is, as always, incredible but she managed to inhabit more emotion and heart into these pop songs than I have ever heard before. "Slipping Through My Fingers" is amazingly sweet, "The Winner Takes It All" manages a power and heartbreak like no other and her super comedically sexy "Mamma Mia" was worth the price of admission. I'll just say it. She was better than Meryl.

Qualms aside, the show does take flight and hopefully once they settle in some of those qualms can be squelched. And so, with my three-letter rating system, I give the 5th Avenue Theatre's production of "Mamma Mia" a Dancing YAY. It's silly and fun and everything you want from an ABBA musical.

"Mamma Mia" performs at the 5th Avenue Theatre through February 25th. For tickets or information contact the 5th Avenue Theatre box office at 206-625-1900 or visit them online at www.5thavenue.org.



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