Skylight’s ‘Mamma Mia’ All About the Songs

So hummable and beloved by audiences. But a little more grounding in plot wouldn’t hurt.

By - Sep 26th, 2022 06:54 pm
Skylight Mamma Mia Highlights-11.jpg: Lisa Estridge (Donna Sheridan, center) and the cast of Mamma Mia! in Skylight Music Theatre’s production of Mamma Mia! running September 23 – October 16, 2022. Photo by Mark Frohna.

Skylight Mamma Mia Highlights-11.jpg: Lisa Estridge (Donna Sheridan, center) and the cast of Mamma Mia! in Skylight Music Theatre’s production of Mamma Mia! running September 23 – October 16, 2022. Photo by Mark Frohna.

Concocted in Britain in 1999 and later the perfect 2001 Broadway antidote to 9/11 blues, Mamma Mia! continues its reign to this day as the biggest jukebox musical of all time – with multiple still active touring productions, a hit movie and a movie sequel.

Put your nickel in Mamma Mia! and the jukebox musical pops out catchy tunes or anthems from the biggest Swedish rock group of the 1970s, ABBA (from the first names of its founding quartet: Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson and Anni-Frid Lyngstad).

Their parade of hummable international hits has been subtly and also bluntly arranged into this story. which runs in a polished production through October 16 at the Skylight Music Theatre. At every moment, with every elaborate synthesizer chord, you expect to hear someone hum “Fernando” – and by golly they do!

Set on an exotic Greek island (perhaps to help us not notice the plot similarities to plays and scripts set in an Italian village or a Bronx neighborhood), a young bride, Sophie, invites the three men who slept with her unwed mother 21 years ago to come to her wedding and help her detect which is her father – not telling Mamma Donna of their arrival, of course.

The occasion reunites the shocked Donna with the three former swains (amazingly limber despite the passage of time) but also (main singing and cavorting point) with her earlier disco trio buddies (the “Dancing Queens”). Perhaps you won’t be surprised by how every favorite duet, trio or chorale synchronizes with the unfolding plot, ending in a long, happy and much applauded curtain call with Spandex that actually introduces some ABBA hits you may have missed.

The staging use props cleverly and has mischievous chorus heads jump out from behind every orifice provided by scenic designer Kimberly Powers, while Shawn Irish’s lights keep dancing on the ceiling to carry us through long overtures for each act. Jason Orlenko’s costumes are also intertwined cleverly into director-choreographer Monica Kapoor’s schematics (she could teach West Point something on military maneuvers). She was in the Broadway version for years and has cast the production with an eye for the synchronized and the showoff flexible (the agility in the older cast brings roars of approvals from a largely older crowd remembering its own Saturday Night Fever days).

The punched-up dance maneuvers and Broadway acting style of the era are as broad as the music, which also revives the sexy mock bumps and gestures that today’s musicals avoid. But they fit the times and the ABBA persona (where only the men are credited with the songs, but female-heavy harmonics abound). Music director and keyboardist David Bonofiglio skillfully leads a large ensemble of instruments and keyboards in the measured rhythms the production relies on.

Ideally, it would be the music that brings in the patrons and the story that keeps them involved. Personally I could never escape feeling the plot was fabricated to coordinate with the music. I kept anticipating the next collision – in fact, anytime I thought a duet might be a real romance, an invisible chorale came in from the wings to duplicate that ABBA sound.

Now this is capable large cast and in their better moments they try, sometimes mawkishly, to find a way under the choreography to bring human reality into the game.

Succeeding more often than not – and she has the alto lower register to blow down the house – is Lisa Estridge who at important moments makes us feel Donna’s dilemma. She has done the part before, as has Victor Wallace as the most romantic swain. Their mutual comfort and relaxation may be why they veer toward real emotional climaxes in big numbers like “SOS” and “The Winner Takes It All.”

The excess effort to hit the comic spots may dampen but never crushes Kelly Britt and Amanda Satchell as Donna’s Mugging Queens. As daughter Sophie who launches the madness, Camara Stampley has acting gifts that do succumb to the efforts to act cute, and the song range is at the edge of her soprano register. I would love to see her play something truer to her gut instincts.

Mamma Mia! Gallery

Dominique Paul Noth served for decades as film and drama critic, later senior editor for features at the Milwaukee Journal. You’ll find his blog here and here.

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