CURTAIN CALLS: Take a chance on ‘Mamma Mia’

One thing is certain about monster successes: they can’t be predicted. The best laid plans can run to naught as easily as an ordinary bright idea can become a shooting star. There’s no formula for it and no accounting for public reactions – which brings me to “Mamma Mia!”

Here it is, the 9th longest running musical on Broadway, having closed after a phenomenal fourteen-year run and a return to its investors in the hundreds of millions.  And what is it really? A jukebox musical based on an all-but-forgotten 1968 rom-com (“Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell”) and the songs of ABBA. Who knew?

Now playing at the Riverside Center in Fredericksburg, “Mamma Mia’s” stardust reputation has preceded it and is filling the house. Anyone who thinks today’s audiences are too jaded for feel-good rhythms and happy-but-improbable endings is betting on the wrong side.

Director/choreographer Penny Ayn Maas mines the high energy built into the show, guaranteeing that by curtain call, at least a few audience members will be up dancing by their tables. But that’s ABBA for you. Those clean cut danceable singables – “Chiquita”, “Dancing Queen”, “Take A Chance on Me”, to name just a few – never let you down. Supported by Carson Eubanks’ six-piece live orchestra, the songs and voices are what you come for.

The story – well, it’s a little silly. I respectfully disagree with those who say that the play “deals with” the issues of single parenthood, the importance of fathers, careers vs. marriage, etc. Donna Sheridan (Betsy Padamonsky) got pregnant twenty-one years ago after whirlwind dalliances with three different men. Neither she nor the resulting daughter, Sophie, (Makenzie Pusey) knows who the father is, but nothing in the script suggests that there has been a man-sized hole in her life where her dad should be.

Now on the eve of her marriage to Sky (Luke Monday), Sophie discovers her mother’s secret and sends wedding invitations to the three men, sure that she will instantly recognize her “real” father. They arrive on the Greek island where all this takes place, unaware that there even is a daughter, and unaware of what the other two are doing there.

Sophie’s besties, Ali (Christina Ramsey) and Lisa (Patricia Targete) show up to be her wing-women and make a fun spectacle out of “Honey, Honey”, one of my favorites with its musical retro-50s riff.  Donna, too, has support in buddies Tanya (Grey Garrett) and Rosie (Andrea Kahane) who were once part of a singing girl trio.  These three rock the much anticipated “Chiquita” and, of course, “Dancing Queen.”

Ms. Padamonsky is all you could ask for in the character of Donna – hard-working, loving, a little defiant, a little confused, and her performance of “The Winner Takes It All” raises goosebumps. Her duet “Slipping Through My Fingers” with Sophie is a shining highlight of the show.

Ms. Garrett, however, gets my vote for Actress I Most Want To See In A Serious Show, and by “serious”, I mean something that requires emotional range.  Her appearance here is tantalizing, but limited to the narrow portrayal of mother-of-the-bride’s loopy friend.

The three fathers-elect, Sam (Kevin Perry), Bill (Gabe Belyeu), and Harry (Alan Hoffman) are pretty much interchangeable, but give workmanlike performances in the many ensemble numbers. I must, however, raise a small finger of remonstrance over the strained attempts at English and Aussie accents which come and go like the tides.

Everyone, it seems, comes in “threes”, and Sky is no exception. His fun-loving, bachelor   buds Eddie (Calvin Malone) and Pepper (Cotton Montgomery) remind us that, while post-adolescent males are not strictly a menace to society, they should all have full time jobs.

Being a bubbly, all-in-good-fun kind of show means that you can brace yourself for acting that is universally broad with unrelieved sass. I’m not suggesting a dose of Stanislavski here, only that it isn’t strictly necessary to physically act out Every. Single. Word.

Where the ensemble really shines, however, is in such irresistible power rhythms and   high-octane energy as “Voulez Vous”, a-punch-your-lights-out Act ender.

DT Willis’ set design with its abstract horizontal driftwood scrim and area staging evokes the color and suggestion of a vacation spot near the ocean. Costume design by Winfield Murdock is in keeping with the upbeat mode of “Mamma Mia”, and ranges from late ‘70s thrift shop to neon spandex. Who can be serious in neon spandex?

Small quibbles aside, the good news for “Mamma Mia” and ABBA fans is that it’s here in its first regional performance in Northern Virginia and the whole Metropolitan area.

Maggie Lawrence is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association. She is a retired English and drama teacher.