Book by Catherine Johnson
Music and lyrics by Benny Anderson, Björn Ulvaeus
Loosely based on the film “Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell” by Dennis Norden
Directed and choreographed by Bryan Knowlton
“Knowing me, knowing you, there is nothing we can do …”
This British import musical based on a slew of ABBA songs from the 1970s is having its third regional production here in the last three summers. I saw it in Weston, Vermont, in 2016; in Albany, New York, in 2017; and now in Chatham, New York. It is one of those shows I never tire of seeing. It is a cheesy play, one that sort of cheats reality, and yet each new viewing reveals new ways of playing certain elements and that always surprise and delight me. Set on a Greek island, its cheese reeks of Feta, slides around in a rather warm, melting brie, and winds up wallowing in a variation on Berkshire Blue. It is both taste-free and tasty, a sort of fondue of a musical. You cannot resist dipping into it every time it plays and the effect is hot, delicious and enticing. You always want more.
Luckily, the play’s layout provides just that in two post-bows reprises of the two most popular numbers, the title song and “Dancing Queen,” ABBA’s most enduring popular hit song. “Abba” in Hebrew means “father,” and this is a big-bear-papa of a show. It is also a standard layout in formatting a song — four sections with the opening section repeating at the end and the middle section played through twice. Many of their songs take that very form and, theatrically speaking, that sometimes makes a song a song and not a plotted moment. But their songs usually make you smile, tap your toes and wish to sing along, so that’s just fine.
The story is a simple one: The 20-year-old daughter of a retired rock singer is getting married and she invites three men to the wedding, each of whom might be her father. She wants to know who her father actually is and discover, thereby, who and what she may become. Her mother is upset by their appearance and the wedding becomes a metaphor for opportunities lost.
Young Sophie Sheridan, played with great feeling and emotional growth by Kelly Gabrielle Murphy, is in love with Sky, a handsome and lovely dancing Gino Cardoni. This couple brings great sincerity to their roles. He plays the simple, open, understandable young man who has a single-track mind that doesn’t allow for much variation. It is a nicer performance than many I’ve seen, and even his anger is handled with a certain charm and grace. Murphy, on the other hand, displays more volatility than is usual in the role and, as she comes to grips with her own fears and uncertainties, she gains maturity and strength to replace them. This Sophie is perhaps the most fully rounded portrayal I have seen.
Her mother, Donna, the owner of the taverna at which the wedding is taking place, is played in this instance by Betsy Padamonsky. Not a great beauty, she clearly portrays the musical professional who has given that up for the practical work of running a business and raising a daughter, aging in the process into a mature, healthy and attractive woman whose youth may be behind her but whose verve has never wavered and whose resolve has been maintained. Padamonsky is a very good singer and an excellent actress and her Donna is up there with the best of them. She moved me with her song “The Winner Takes It All” and also, for the first time that I can remember, with “One of Us,” a song that I like very much but felt I was hearing, in this production, for the first time.
Her two best friends and former back-up singers, Tanya and Rosie, were played by Madison Stratton and Erin Spears Ledford. Stratton is heavenly as the much married, multimillionaired Tanya, better even than in last year’s Lady of the Lake role in “Spamalot.” She is not as funny as some Tanyas, but she is a definitive minx who knows how to seduce, conquer and overwhelm any man of any age. On the flip side is Ledford’s Rosie, a professional cook and author who can turn the tide on negativity with her sense of push and haul. Ledford takes away the seedier aspects of Rosie and even her hilarious seductive takedown of an eternal bachelor was funny, sweet and successfully raunchy without ever becoming offensive. These two actresses make the buddy roles into virtual leads. Bravi!!
The three men in Donna’s life, particularly in her past, are played by Stave Hassmer (Harry “HeadBanger” Bright), Colin Pritchard (Bill Austin), and Gabe Belyeu (Sam Carmichael). The story tells us she had intercourse with each of them within about a month and so any one could be Sophie’s father. However, we get a sense from the start which one is most likely and, when they all turn out to be at least emotionally available for the role, the trio become a symbiotically sympathetic single dad. Hassmer is wonderful as Harry — sweet, emotional, charming, all those things geared to make a daughter proud. Pritchard provokes masculinity and then wears that trait like a suit of well-fitted armor. Belyeu provides a belligerent romantic adversary aimed toward righting wrongs not actually committed.
Circumstances provide reasons for songs for these men and they take advantage of each opportunity to win hearts and positive nods from everyone except Donna. This is much more a “Taming of the Shrew” than a “Romeo and Juliet” experience, but this is a musical and a happy ending is anticipated. This show provides a double dose of happiness and laughter, so please do not rush out of the theater before the lights actually come up.
Sophie’s two best friends, like her mother’s, provide some lively musical moments, particularly in the opening of the show. They are played by the pert, pretty and pretty petite Steffany Pratt and Emma Flynn. It is hard to take your eyes off them when they are on stage.
The same can be said for the chorus members and the minor characters, particularly Pepper, a bartender played by Atsushi Eda. His compatriot, Eddie, is played by Jayke Workman in a less showy but equally strong role. This company dances a lot and sings a lot, both onstage and offstage, supplying that unique tonal sonority that ABBA used in their recordings.
There were problems with the sound system on opening night and that caused some havoc in the audience; onstage, the troupe performed liked seasoned professionals. The show, directed and choreographed by Bryan Knowlton, felt a bit under-rehearsed. There were some very sloppy moments on stage, but I am certain these will be ironed out and cleaned up quickly along with the sound issues. The dancing was a bit messy at times and figurative, almost wall-painting-like. The sets by Kevin Gleason were occasionally awkward and his lighting was spotty, sometimes missing the cast members entirely, but that may have just been one more technical glitch in an otherwise remarkable performance. Bethany Marx provided perfect costumes, however, for each character.
The reference to the motion picture “Buena Sera, Mrs. Campbell,” which appears in the notes to critics, is an odd one. In that film the unmarried Mrs. Campbell has been raising her daughter on money provided by three American ex-soldiers, each of whom believes he fathered the child on an innocent young Italian woman. During a troop reunion, the three men show up in Italy at the same time. That is really as close as the stories get but, since the theater mentions the film, it seemed important to follow through. This really has no relationship to that.
Cheesy is the show, but I like cheese and, this time around, the aforementioned fondue is delicious. “Mamma Mia! Here we go again … my, my, how can I resist this?”
Mamma Mia! plays at the Mac-Haydn Theatre, 1925 Route 203, Chatham, New York, through Sunday, July 22. For information and tickets, see the Berkshire Edge calendar, go online to http://www.machaydntheatre.orgor call the box office at (518) 392-9292.