BWW Review: Party Like It's 1999 with American Stage in the Park's Joyous MAMMA MIA

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BWW Review: Party Like It's 1999 with American Stage in the Park's Joyous MAMMA MIA

In April of 1977, I was 14 years old. One Sunday that month, my older brother had been listening to Casey Kasem's American Top-40 on radio station CK-101, and he emerged from the bedroom afterwards, his face drained of all color. He looked emotionally beaten and battered, and when he spoke, there was a sense of dread in his voice. Something was wrong. "It's the end of the world," he said.

Obviously startled by such a proclamation, I asked a simple question: "Why?"

I would never forget his answer, nor the hollowness of his voice, almost like it was void of any emotion, a balloon slowly deflating. "Abba's 'Dancing Queen' is at Number One," he said. "It's the end of the world. Or at least it should be."

He was into rock at the time--Springsteen and the Stones--and would enjoy the Sex Pistols later in the year. So I didn't tell my brother that I was a closet Abba admirer, and that I secretly enjoyed such songs as "Waterloo," "S.O.S." or even the dreaded "Dancing Queen." And after my brother's Apocalyptic prediction, I would continue to enjoy them clandestinely--especially "Take a Chance on Me" and "The Name of the Game." But even I had to draw the line at "Super Trouper."

Abba, once the biggest musical act in the world, slowly went away, and after they called it quits in 1983, it was rare to hear their music anywhere for almost a decade. And then a sort of Abba rebirth occurred in the early 1990's, with the release of their greatest hits ("Gold") and Erasure's "Abba-esque" LP, plus films like Muriel's Wedding and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert where Abba's catchy pop tunes played an important part. Finally, the ultimate Abba celebration--the jukebox musical MAMMA MIA--hit the stage in 1999 (with the popular movie showing in theaters in 2008), and Abba's official world conquest was complete.

I first saw the stage show almost two decades ago, and though it's no longer a secret that I enjoy some of Abba's infectious tunes, I felt the musical forced and purposely inconsequential, despite it being so influential (every jukebox musical since owes a debt to MAMMA MIA). It did nothing for me.

But all of that has changed with the latest American Stage in the Park's production of MAMMA MIA (music and lyrics by Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson; book by Catherine Johnson). This venue is perfect for the musical. The last park productions of American Stage--Spamalot, Hairspray and The Producers--were wonderful shows, but the park atmosphere added nothing to the experience. They could have been performed anywhere. MAMMA MIA, on the other hand, needs this sort of outdoor production, this sort of party-hardy sing-along style extravaganza. It's more of an experience than a mere show. And Abba's songs are so energetic, so lively, that you can't help but join the party. It's the best American Stage in the Park show since 2015's In the Heights and by far the best MAMMA MIA you're going to see in a long time.

The storyline couldn't be simpler: On a Mediterranean island in 1999, 20-year-old Sophie reads her single mother's journals from 1979, and realizes that one of three men are certain to be her father. She invites this trio of mom's suitors to her own wedding, and much confusion and hilarity ensues, all to the tune of Abba songs. That's it. This is not Look Back in Anger or Mourning Becomes Electra; this is unapologetic lightweight fluff, though there are some very poignant and tender moments that tug the heart. But it's the joyous celebration of music that we take with us. This is bubblegum for the soul.

And yet, MAMMA MIA contains another interesting undercurrent--a sort of a tug of war between the Boomer lifestyle and a latter-day Gen X lifestyle (though Sophie is on the cusp of being a Millennial). Sophie's mother, Donna, chooses single-motherhood, and Sophie wants to make different choices than her mom's hippy-dippy ideals by getting married. In this regard, it's like a revisionist Family Ties pulsating with an Abba beat.

The cast is glorious.

In 2011, I saw a young teenager named Julia Rifino own the stage as Millie in a production of Thoroughly Modern Millie Jr. at Stage West. I had an inkling that that young lady would be going places--a talent such as hers is certainly rare--so it's heartening to see her here, in one of Florida's top theaters, in the lead role of Sophie. This is a part where she can showcase all her wondrous strengths: stellar vocals, top-flight dancing and tons of heart. She owns the stage here as she did so many years ago, that incredible potential fulfilled. We root for her character and understand her struggle, and fun as the show is, Rifino makes Sophie's plight real. She adds a certain depth to a show that I thought was too shallow for any real depth to be found.

Alison Burns seems born to play Sophie's mom, Donna. Her singing is off the charts here, and when she hits the final chill-inducing note of "The Winner Takes It All," the audience roared and cheered as if they were at a Lightning game. As one of her suitors, Sam, Jim Sorensen is quite sturdy and strong. And don't worry, his singing is so much better than Pierce Brosnan's in the same role (then again, so is anyone else's). But Sorensen sounds great and is a true leading man.

Larry Alexander is lively and hearty as Harry, another suitor who used to be known as Head Banger, and Armando Acevedo finishes out the trio in an extremely likable turn as Bill. Erick Ariel Sureda is a wonderful dancer and onstage presence who catches the eye of one of Donna's girl friends. Cameron Hale Elliott stands out in the rather thankless role of Sky, Sophie's fiancé. And the entire ensemble is so good, they become as important as any of the leads: Matt Acquard, Matthew Alexander (as Eddie), the beautiful Holly Atwood, Dylan Connor Renfrow, the charismatic Emanuel Carrero, Bianca Chico, Kaylie Horowitz, Erin Leigh Knowles, Mark Wildman and Kelly Plescia. Special mention goes to Renata Eastlick. Although she is an ensemble member, she is always in the moment, always alive in the dance routines and in the moments not in the spotlight. She's American Stage's good luck charm (so good in both In the Heights and Good People); no matter the size of the role, she's always stunning onstage.

The honor for best in this outstanding cast must go to both Becca McCoy and Jennifer Byrne as Donna's best friends who used to be in a glittery musical act called Donna and the Dynamos. Byrne, so winning in freeFall's The Light in the Piazza and The Musical of Musicals: The Musical, gives her best performance here as the hilarious, always hungover, and extremely tall Tanya. She makes the mere blowing (not sucking) air into a mattress into a routine worthy of an R-rated I Love Lucy episode.

And McCoy, always so good, absolutely owns her role as Rosie. Her "Take a Chance on Me," sung to Bill, hits comedic highs as the actress slinks toward her romantic prey, slowly moving in for the passion-provoked lunge. And McCoy does more with a simple facial expression, oftentimes a slow burn, than anyone in recent memory. She and Byrne are so good, so hilarious, that they should have their own warring-buddies TV series.

Director Stephanie Gularte has done it again and has guided one beautifully-paced production. It's a locomotive of a musical, and it accelerates and rarely slows down. But she not only keeps the contraption on the rails, she makes the ride one hell of a good time. Jerid Fox's set (and rolling set pieces) create the perfect playground for the actors, and Mike Wood's lighting is flashy without being too obtrusive (I love the disco effects, perfect for the dancing queens on stage and in the audience).

Although the sound is much better than in past park experiences, it still has some minor issues here, which has become a fact of life of late: death, taxes, and sound issues during the American Stage in the Park shows.

Vocally, the performers here are top of the line, with beautiful harmonies from the leads and the ensemble. It sounds exquisite. Michael Raabe's musical direction is superb, and his band is as tight as tight can be: With Raabe and Jeremy D. Silverman on keyboards; Paul Stoddart on guitar; Joe Grady (or TJ Glowacki) on bass; and the unbeatable Burt Rushing on drums.

Shain Stroff's choreography is the liveliest you will ever see; these performers get quite a workout, covered in sweat by the end of the show. Songs like "Gimme Gimme Gimme" and "Does Your Mother Know?" become surprise show-stoppers. It's all spellbinding, non-stop pleasure; Fun with a capital F.

There's nothing quite like the American Stage in the Park experience. Come early so you can enjoy the mic checks while noshing on a Chicken Tzatziki Wrap and drinking Voulez Brew (pink beer). Sometimes the atmosphere gets out of hand--there's a lot of really loud talking throughout the show--but the vibe is so cool, you forgive any drunken outbursts or exclamations. "IT'S FUN, RIGHT?" one person near me shouted at the top of her lungs to a friend during "Thank You for the Music." Yes, it is fun, but it would be even more fun without the constant shouting in the middle of songs. But I guess that's part of the overall charm of the theatre in the park experience.

Although there are true performing artists at the top of their game on that stage, this is not art; it's a party, a celebration of Abba and the joy of their infectious music. Look, there's a moment where the three gal pals are dressed in glam-pop outfits singing the ridiculous "Super Trouper" at a bachelorette party; this isn't Long Day's Journey Into Night, nor does it want to be. This is pure pop, the joy of living in the Now, which is what pop music really celebrates. Life is hard, and a show like this makes you forget the hardships and party, party, party like it's 1999. So, see MAMMA MIA, even if you think you hate Abba. It's one of the must-see theatrical events of the year, and the outdoor production is as good as it gets. And I guarantee you'll have a great time, creating great memories, no matter how curmudgeonly you might be. Hell, I think even my brother would like it.

American Stage in the Park's MAMMA MIA plays at Demens Landing in St. Petersburg until May 12th. For tickets, please call (727) 823-PLAY (7529).



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From This Author Peter Nason