Mamma Mia!, Book by Catherine Johnson, Music and Lyrics by Benny Anderson and Bjorn Ulvaeus (ABBA); some songs by Stig Anderson. Directed by Tim Fort. Choreographed by Michael Raine. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Dan DeLuca and Clare Howes Eisentroug; photo: provided
Give a girl three fathers just one day before her wedding and watch her shine! Surround her with a devoted mother, great friends and god-aunts, give her a gorgeous and involved fiance, set everyone down on a Greek island, let it be the 1990s and then, just to make it all surreal, let everyone sing 1970s ABBA songs, right off the disco-ball, to their hearts content and you have "Mamma Mia!" now playing at the Weston Playhouse in Weston, VT. My personal heroes in the theatre school of song-writing have always been Kurt Weill, Rodgers and Hart, The Gershwin Brothers and Cole Porter, but I have to add ABBA as a very close fifth choice. They manage to produce unbounded joy in their lively lyrics and buoyant tunes. This new production did something extraordinary: it made me laugh and it made me cry, simultaneously, from its opening dream-like song to its overly produced but fabulous finale ultimo.
It is, quite simply, the story of a wedding thrown by a single mother for her only daughter who is desperate to discover the identity of her father before her wedding day. She finds the names of three men in her mother's diary who dot-dot-dotted her mother (it really does make sense if you think about it) and assuming that one of them could be the man she seeks she invites them all, secretly, to her wedding. In the only unlikely spot in the scenario they all show up. Donna Sheridan, Mom, is very upset about this but her daughter Sophie is initially delighted. Sophie's boyfriend Sky is less pleased and the men are generally confused by what's going on. That's the plot. That's not the show. The show is the music and the people and the music and the music.
There are twenty-two songs in this show and each one is a brilliant little tale of life in the disco fast lane. This show will never have the cache of "My Fair Lady" or "Oklahoma" or any show from Broadway's Golden Age, but it will always be a crowd-pleaser as long as the director understands that it is all about the songs and not about the people. There is no Billy Bigelow and Julie Jordan ("Carousel") here, there is Sam and Donna, Bill and Donna, Harry and Donna. In this production an exquisite group of four take on these pivotal roles. Harry is played by Tom Aulino, Bill by Sam Lloyd, Jr. and Sam by David Bonanno. These three men more than do justice to their roles. They are all men with secrets, men who are attractive in different ways attracted to different things. They all agree, however, that Donna was the highpoint in their youthful romances. Lloyd is utterly charming as Bill, the world-traveling writer who travels light and makes no attachments. He surprises us from moment to moment playing a highly romantic figure in khakis and a knapsack. This is not Lloyd's forte, but he pulls it off as only an actor without limits can do. Aulino plays the sensitive one whose British essence almost tips the scales of recognition. Like Lloyd he manages the romance without batting an eyelash and is credible and believable instantly.
Bonanno is a brilliant choice for Sam, the American who literally left Donna at the alter twenty-one years earlier prompting her to seek other lovers and then remove herself to this island to build a Taverna that was Sam's dream and and to live a life of near-solitude raising her child with her own values. Bonanno makes Sam devastatingly attractive. He sings like a dream and acts the misunderstood suitor with relevance and bite. His loving looks at his supposed daughter are matched by his obvious enjoyment at being in this place at this time even when he says the opposite.
In fact, that obvious enjoyment affects the entire company. In all my time going to the theater I cannot remember a company that smiles so genuinely and so often, that touches one another simply and for a moment only with such frequency. The ensemble, the principals, the compromaria all interact with a flush of hippy love and peace that gives this show a patina of high-gloss happiness that stretches out over the audience. You know you're watching a play but you feel like you live in this place with all those people and that you have no troubles that cannot be assuaged with a dance line, a good song and a shared intimacy. This is so lovely; this is some of the work of director Tim Fort who has created the best production ever of this show.
Clare Howes Eisentrout is a precious and beautiful Sophie. She has a beautiful voice and glorious smile and slender, lithe body that moves with the music to perfection. Dan DeLuca matches her mood for mood and action for action as Sky and when they dance together you can tell that the old Greek Gods are applauding up there on Mt. Olympus.
Donna's two friends and former back-up singers are played to their utmost possibilities by Joanne Lessner and Brandy Zarle. As Rosie and Tanya they bring the youth of middle-aged fervor back into Donna's life and watching these two ladies strut their stuff in their old styles and their new ones is just so wonderful. Together, in tandem, or in trio, Lessner and Zarle win your hearts with each smile, with each soft and sympathetic gesture and with their sexual taunting of men young and older. On a neighboring island a few years earlier opera star Maria Callas was giving her all to capture a man and these ladies make her outrageous capabilities seem a touch shallow by comparison.
Of the younger folks Devin Johnson is a standout as Pepper who makes a play for the older woman, Tanya, but who could easily wind up with someone else from that generation playing the way he does. Michael Canada as his friend and co-bartender Eddie, does a fine job in his less showy role.
It falls to Susan Haefner, however, to carry much of the dramatic burden of this sprightly show. She takes the bit in her teeth and pulls forward against all odds and makes the evening into something far beyond pleasure. She plays anger, frustration, love, passion, desire, mother-love and every other conceivable Greek intention with the musical honesty of a diva who knows how best to do it. She sings wonderfully. She dances delightfully. She emotes like a veritable Julie Harris adding a strength to the simple moments and a clarity to the most confusing of motives. You know quickly why three men loved Donna. You want to add your name to her list of conquests, although she wouldn't think of them in those terms no matter how true it may be. That is Haefner's method of animating Donna.
This is a beautiful, or rather stunning, production with set, costumes and lights (Howard C, Jones, Karen Ann Ledger, Ann G. Wrightson) all doing exactly the right thing all of the time. Director Tim Fort has chosen his creative team well and along with the delicious choreography created by Michael Raine, he has created a virtually seamless performance with this lovely cast. Larry Pressgrove's orchestral reduction is brightly and finely played by five musicians who are slightly over-miked. The program doesn't tell you who is singing which songs and they are listed in alphabetical order instead in the performance order which really doesn't help an audience member track the show. Those are my only quibbles here. My only ones.
I want to tell you to rush out and purchase tickets for this show, but word is out that the run is already SOLD OUT. I would still call the box office, cry, wail, plead and beg for the one or two seats that will undoubtedly become available. This show is so good, that I would recommend that Weston Playhouse cancel their last show and just extend this one for as long as possible. In fact, I may have to begin a letter-writing campaign for that purpose. I really want you to see this show. I really do.
Sam Lloyd, Jr., David Bonanno, Tom Aulino; photo: provided
Susan Haefner; photo: provided
Mamma Mia! plays at the Weston Playhouse, on the Village Green on Route 100, Weston, VT through August 20. For information and tickets (?) call the box office at 802-824-5288 or go on line at www.westonplayhouse.org.