By Tina Arth
The lights gradually come up on an enchanted island setting – the whitewashed walls of the small taverna tell us that we are in Greece. As dawn brightens into day, the orchestra plays us into the mood of Broadway Rose’s spectacular production of Mamma Mia!, launching the big summer musical season with a “must-see” audience favorite that sparkles like the sun-kissed waves of its romantic setting. Music director/conductor Alan D. Lytle and director/choreographer Lyn Cramer have teamed up to present a skillfully crafted, flawlessly cast production of 1999’s megahit that augments an already light-hearted story with an extra dose of imagination and wit. The show, built around songs by ‘70s pop superstars ABBA, with music and lyrics by the Swedish group’s Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus (with additional songs by Stig Anderson), and the book by Catherine Johnson, makes no serious pretense at realism – it’s pure fun anchored by a giant helping of concert quality lead and ensemble vocals.
The story takes place on the fictional Greek Island of Kalokairi as 20-year-old Sophie prepares for her wedding. She wants her father to walk her down the aisle, but her mom, the formerly free-spirited Donna, claims not to know precisely who that might be. After reading relevant passages from her mom’s diary, Sophie narrows it down to three candidates, and (without Donna’s knowledge) invites all three men to the wedding. Sophie’s quest for two solid male anchors, a father and a husband, contrasts with Donna’s utter rejection of dependence on a man – she has raised her daughter alone, built her taverna alone, and cannot understand why Sophie wants to tie herself down at this stage in her life. The prospective fathers, fiancé, and friends (including Donna’s two besties, former members of her ‘70s girl group) reflect and react; by the end, both Sophie and Donna have learned a lot, and in neat rom-com fashion flip the script - things end well, but on a completely different track from where they started out.
Each of the three “fathers” brings a unique perspective as Sophie auditions them for the role of father: Matthew H. Curl, once “Head Banger Harry” but now a fussy Londoner, Joey Klei as the rootless wanderer who never quite grew up, and Andrew Maldarelli as the utterly sincere Sam, immediately established as Donna’s great love who somehow got away. All three lead men contribute to the powerful vocal ensemble, and each gets at least one big moment in the spotlight with Curl’s poignantly reminiscent “Our Last Summer” (with Donna), Klei’s lively “Take A Chance on Me” (with Donna’s irrepressible friend Rosie), and Maldarelli’s impassioned “Knowing Me, Knowing You.” Poor Aaron Stewart (as fiancé Sky) does not fare as well – in typical male ingénue fashion, he is something of an afterthought in the script – but he and his pals get the most amazing dance numbers to balance out the inequity.
However, the production is really propelled by two factors: the steady barrage of ABBA songs and the women who drive these numbers. Sophie Moshofsky (as Sophie) launches the show with a huge rendition of “Honey, Honey” and closes it with “I Have a Dream” to balance her naïve, sometimes petulant approach with an irresistible enthusiasm for life – a classic ingénue with a big smile and a bigger voice. Laura McCulloch’s portrayal of the seriously wacky “Rosie” provides a steady stream of comic relief, and Lisamarie Harrison’s slightly zaftig, libidinous “Tanya” claims her fair share of sardonic hilarity. Then there’s Peggy Taphorn as “Donna” – angry, hurt, trying (but failing) to mask her vulnerability with a brittle, cynical exterior that screams her independence. Whether performing as lead singer on some amazingly arranged, choreographed numbers by “Donna and the Dynamos” like “Chiquitita” and "Dancing Queen” or delivering powerful, emotional renditions of “One of Us” and “The Winner Takes It All” - whether clad in her signature baggy denim overalls or the dazzling kitsch of her old show costumes - she owns the stage throughout.
Allison Dawe’s costume design provides a huge dose of the show’s humor – the swim trunk/snorkel clad male ensemble is unforgettable, and until I saw the show I had no idea it was possible to tap dance in flippers! Cramer’s choreography is solid throughout, and the Dynamos hit just the right note of disco obsolescence, but it is the athleticism she draws from her male dancers that really marks her work as both first-rate and witty. Lytle’s vocal direction and orchestra are, as always, first-rate, but he also adds a few very funny touches rarely seen in the conductor of a pit full of musicians. Brian Boyd’s scenic design is serene, calming, lovely – and the cleverly designed revolving set eliminates almost all scene change delays. Sound, lighting, and tech combine seamlessly with these elements to ensure both a concert-quality musical experience and an exuberant, heart-warming background for the story.
Despite the size of the Deb Fennell Auditorium, many of the shows are nearly sold out, and the best seats are going fast. Buy now for one of the remaining performances – you won’t be disappointed!
Broadway Rose’s Mamma Mia! runs through July 22nd at Tigard High School’s Deb Fennell Auditorium.