Theater review: Mamma Mia! at Flat Rock Playhouse
Edwin Arnaudin: As you know, I pretty much loathe the film adaptation of Mamma Mia! and only moderately like its recent sequel, Here We Go Again. Still, I had a feeling that the jukebox musical of ABBA songs would work better in its original stage setting — and the current Flat Rock Playhouse production supports that instinct.
Bruce Steele: I love the original movie and saw the Broadway-bound stage show twice before it reached New York, so I had higher expectations for the Flat Rock show. And I’m happy to report that those expectations were largely met by an energetic and entertaining production. So how did it win you over?
Edwin: A lot of it has to do with musicals’ seeming more at home on stage. Performers singing and dancing in a live setting generally feels more natural than on camera, which involves so many other factors to pull off a successful tone — something the Mamma Mia! movie never accomplished for me. But from the opening sounds of bride-to-be Sophie (Emily Fink) singing bits of “I Have a Dream” as she mails wedding invitations to her three potential fathers, soon followed by her take on “Honey, Honey” with best friends Ali (Maddie Franke) and Lisa (Tiffany Chalothorn), it just feels right.
Bruce: The charm of Mamma Mia! has always been a kind of audience wish-fulfillment: Baby Boomers can imagine themselves up there onstage belting out their favorite ABBA tunes, supported by a gaggle of gorgeous young people. And Flat Rock’s casting choices played right into that: Donna, the Meryl Streep role, is played by Mary Mossberg, who has a great voice but is also appealingly down-to-earth with her overalls, tousled hair and always-a-bit-worried demeanor. Did you have a favorite among the six “older” cast members?
Edwin: Mossberg is an excellent leading lady, though I’m also fond of scene stealers Tauren Hagans as Donna’s longtime friend Rosie, and JP Sarro as Sophie’s Australian maybe-daddy Bill. Both are lifelong loners with warm hearts and wind up sharing some of the musical’s funniest moments. Who stands out to you from the Boomer crowd?
Bruce: You stole my faves with Hagans and Sarro, whose “Take a Chance on Me” had the audience laughing up a storm, right on the heels of Mossberg’s supremely powerful “The Winner Takes It All.” Indeed, it’s remarkable how perfectly the songs in Act II advance the plot or just fit the premise. Another favorite of mine is “Does Your Mother Know?,” led by Donna’s pal Tanya, a brightly playful Angie Schworer. Like many of the dance numbers, it gives the youthful Flat Rock summer apprentice crew a fine showcase for their talents. I’m pretty sure I heard you chuckling during the guys’ snorkel-fin dance with “Lay All Your Love on Me.”
Edwin: Guilty. The moving floor — one of several instances in which it’s used to great effect — adds some silly razzle-dazzle to a game but unpolished male ensemble that does its best with the assigned all-legs choreography. Follow it up with the reunited Donna and the Dynamos' “Super Trouper,” the perfect curtain call for Here We Go Again, and two numbers later with energetic first act closer “Voulez-Vous” and I went into intermission electrified. I agree that the Act II selections fall more naturally into the story as various conflicts are resolved and other opportunities arise, but they’re also more emotionally raw and often part of one-on-one scenes that somewhat disrupt the storytelling flow. It’s different and necessary, but I missed the sustained energy of Act I.
Bruce: It’s true that Act I is more spectacle and silliness and Act II is more emotional, with Mossberg’s heartfelt delivery of “One of Us” and, in a duet with Fink, “Slipping Through My Fingers.” Both acts worked well for me. The whole show, under the direction of Amy Jones, who also did the choreography, had a snappy pace and breezy flow, aided by the schematic, versatile set by Dennis C. Maulden. Ashli Arnold Crump kept the costumes appropriately basic for most of the show but pulled out a splendid wedding dress and some crazy-fun curtain-call outfits as well. What did you think of the offstage band?
Edwin: They’re rock solid and an anchor for the singers, who had the occasional missed cue on Sunday afternoon (that honestly just made them all the more endearing and relatable). It’s just guitar, bass, drums and two keyboards under the direction of Keyboard I player Alex Shields, but they bring the familiar ABBA instrumentation to full-sounding life throughout the production. And not to show my age or anything, but I also quite enjoyed their inclusion of the electronic flute from "Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!,” which I’d previously associated solely with Madonna’s “Hung Up.” I appreciate the post-show education you provided.
Bruce: Happy to share Baby Boomer wisdom with the Millennial generation — an entirely appropriate mix for this show that blends a bevy of 20-somethings with a half-dozen 40-somethings recalling their youth. We haven’t yet mentioned Jason Watson as Harry “Headbanger” and Sean Hayden as Sam, the “older” roles played by Colin Firth and Pierce Brosnan in the film, two high-orbiting movie stars. Watson and Hayden anchor their parts back on earth, and Hayden reminds us how nice it is to have a Sam who can sing. Watson has a nice duet with Mossberg (“Our Last Summer”) and I enjoyed his comic timing as well. And you’re right about the glitches — a dropped prop, a dress caught on a chair — just adding to the show’s charm. It’s the kind of show where you don’t want everyone to be slickly synchronized, and Flat Rock keeps it loose.
Edwin: It took a minute to get used to a Canadian — right? — Sam, but the adjustment is worth it, especially once it’s clear Hayden can carry a tune. There are no weak links here, just some underdeveloped parts among the younger characters — a shortcoming of the book, not this company. Though bubbly and pleasant, there’s not much to Ali and Lisa, and Sophie’s fiancé Sky (Zane Phillips) actually feels less sketched-in than his amusing cougar-hunting friend Pepper (Travante Baker). Other than Sophie, it’s not this generation’s story, but they’re on stage enough that a motivation beyond friendship or romance might have enriched their presence.
Bruce: For youthful back story, I’m afraid audiences will have to take in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again at the movies. This show’s mostly about the elders — although it wouldn’t work nearly as well without the joyful ensemble, who are just too numerous to mention. Given our parking experience and the packed theater, I’d advise Mamma Mia! fans to buy their tickets early and show up well in advance of showtime. This one’s going to be a hot ticket.
Edwin: Indeed — it’s worth the extra planning and time. I expect the Flat Rock braintrust is kicking itself a bit for not booking a longer run, but odds seem good that it’ll be back before too long.
Mamma Mia! runs Wednesday-Sunday through Aug. 18. For showtimes and tickets, visit www.flatrockplayhouse.org.
(Photos by Treadshots, courtesy of Flat Rock Playhouse)