The downside of reviewing theatre for as many years as I have is, inevitably, I see the same plays and musicals multiple times. In some cases, it’s a chore, but other times, it is a complete joy. Such is the case with “Mamma Mia!” presented by Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre on The Tarkington stage at the Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel. The show launches Civic’s 105th season and opens Friday, running through Oct. 19.
“Mamma Mia!” is a heartwarming, juke-box musical written by British playwright Catherine Johnson, which premiered in London in 1999. It is based on the songs of ABBA, composed by former band members Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus and others they wrote with Stig Anderson. The musical includes such hits as “Super Trouper,” “Lay All Your Love on Me,” “Dancing Queen,: “Knowing Me, Knmowiing You,” “Take a Chance on Me,” and the title track. A film adaption starring Meryl Streep was released in 2008. A sequel, titled “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again,” was released in 2018 with most of the main cast returning, along with superstar Cher.
“Mamma Mia!” tells the story of Sophie, a young woman who lives on an idyllic Greek island. She wants the perfect wedding and hopes her father will give her away, but doesn’t know who he is. Her mother Donna, who runs a hotel on the island, is the former lead singer of a 70s pop group Donna and the Dynamos. She refuses to talk about the past, so Sophie decides to do some detective work. She finds her mother’s old diary and discovers three possible fathers: Sam, Bill, and Harry. Convinced she’ll know her father when she sees him, Sophie secretly invites all three men to her wedding. But when all they all turn up, her plan results in a major dilemma.
Ann Beck, a former Broadway performer, did an exceptional job of directing and choreographing the production. Setting it apart from previous productions I have seen was the utter enthusiasm and buoyant energy of its youthful ensemble. That is not to say that the show’s leads weren’t terrific as well, but I was really impressed with the showmanship of the chorus members, all of whom exceled as singers-dancer-actors. Though Civic is professionally managed, its performers are avocational. Due to Beck’s impeccable guidance, and that of seasoned music director Brent Marty, however, they could all be mistaken for professionals. Such was the polish and discipline reflected in their infectious performances.
The icing on the cake were the engaging performances of Becky Larson (Sophie Sheridan), Marni Lemons (Rosie) Laura Lockwood (Tanya) Clay Mabbitt (Sam Carmichael) Joseph David Massingale (Sky), Ethan Mathias (Harry Bright), Kara Snyder (Donna Sheridan) and Parrish Williams (Bill Austin).
I am always thoroughly impressed with the first-rate production values of any Civic production and this one was no exception. The “Mamma Mia!” creative team of Ryan Koharchik (sets & lighting), Michael Lasley (sound), Adrienne Conces (costumes) and Andrew Elliot (wigs) are responsible for the visual and auditory splendor of this show. Their combined work represents the gold standard in local community theatre technical production.
Another production feature deserving of kudos was the eleven-piece orchestra led by Marty. Sounding twice its size, the musicians flawlessly rendered the disco-era ABBA hits that elicited waves of nostalgia for yours truly, who once wore bell-bottoms and danced in platform shoes. As music director, Marty can also take credit for the show’s solid vocals, and those of the offstage voices in particular.
Who could ever have imagined the radio songs by a Swedish pop group, whom many grew up with, would one day become musical theatre songs? On the other hand, who could have imagined that a musical with themes that cover aging, raising children, friendship and reconciling with the past could be written around these songs? “Mamma Mia!” endures because of its universality and the appeal of its music, which is catchy, sunny and offers a smile-through-tears optimism. It’s a satisfying elixir for those craving a little escapism from their troubles, delivered with pizzazz by a company that’s filled with heart. Spirited and uplifting, it’s live entertainment at its best.
For tickets and information about “Mamma Mia!” call (317) 843-3800 or visit thecenterpresents.org.