By Lynn Venhaus
“Mamma Mia!” – take me away! Stages St. Louis’ high-spirited production is a ticket to pure escapism, a refreshing summer confection that’s a welcome respite from real-world troubles.
What makes this version of the jukebox musical irresistible is the intimate staging at the Robert G. Reim Theatre and an exuberant ensemble whose joy is infectious. Under Michael Hamilton’s animated direction, they are having such a blast that it’s easy to be drawn into their merrymaking. The joint was jumping!
Don’t think too hard about the story’s timeline or do any math about the ages – for this fantasy is critic-proof and one must suspend belief. For supreme enjoyment, be on board for mindless fun when you take your seat, and if you are not singing, dancing or clapping in time during the festive curtain call, check your pulse.
The 1999 smash hit, now the ninth longest-running Broadway musical of all-time, cleverly weaves 1970s hit songs by Swedish pop group ABBA into a lightweight romantic comedy about a former singer and her soon-to-be-married daughter. It may be far-fetched, but it works – hence, the global phenomenon.
Sophie, 20, is obsessed with the looming question of who’s her father, so she invites the maybe-dads Australian adventurer Bill, stuffed-shirt British banker Harry and divorced American architect Sam. They all show up. At the same time.
Donna Sheridan’s bandmates Tanya and Rosie, aka The Dynamos, also arrive at her Greek island taverna. This reunion combo leads to a splendid “Dancing Queen” and “Super Trooper,” and a sweet “Chiquitita,” with all three strong-voiced actresses Corinne Melancon (Donna), Dan’yelle Williamson (Rosie) and Dana Winkle (Tanya) in robust harmony.
Book writer Catherine Johnson has injected plenty of light-hearted humor into what ultimately is a heartwarming celebration of family, friends and women empowerment, all played out on a tiny slice of paradise.
In a fresh and dynamic way, the creative team has emphasized the everlasting charm that makes the show so popular, and the ensemble projects a carefree day-at-the-beach mentality. Stages’ has concentrated on the characters’ feelings, which aids the believability of their connections.
Tony Gonzalez’ buoyant choreography is a highlight, with “Lay All Your Love on Me” featuring a unique tap-dance in snorkeling fins that prompted hearty applause.
He maintained the effusive party atmosphere in “Voulez-Vous” and “Gimme Gimme Gimme,” where the chorus shines.
The technical elements came together in such a pleasurable way that it truly enhanced the experience.
Ah, the sun-drenched days and starry nights are beautifully captured by Sean M. Savoie’s lighting design, with James Wolk’s scenic design adding a moon that moves. The taverna’s balcony is a smart addition for a stressed-out Donna and wistful musical numbers.
Resident costume designer Brad Musgrove’s penchant for glitz gets a workout here, and the colorful eye-candy costumes pop. He outdoes fashion designer Bob Mackie for the razzle-dazzle finale, and noteworthy are the ensemble’s bright and flamboyant wedding attire. With the show set in 1999, I don’t think the outfits entirely reflected that period, but rather spotlighted a spirit of adventure.
The entire cast must be an integral component for this story to succeed, and this group is one of the finest I’ve seen. Music director Lisa Campbell Albert kept up a kicky pace for the singers, and oh, is it a tight chorus, not to mention the consummate professionalism of the principals. Stuart M. Elmore’s orchestral designs are on point.
I was surprised to find out that some patrons had never seen it before – and their joy of discovery was palpable. Fortunately, they experienced an outstanding show as their first time.
Corinne Melancon has become a versatile leading lady at Stages, capable of genuine conviction. She is an experienced Donna – she played the role as part of the 11 years she spent in the Broadway cast, and was also the other two Dynamos. She appeared to really love portraying this woman.
With all that experience, she could have coasted, but is fully engaged as a woman wrestling with a lot of pent-up feelings and frustrations. She brings a gravitas to the single mom who is a struggling businesswoman too.
She excels in a well-staged “Money, Money, Money” and the title song, but knocks “The Winner Takes It All” out of the auditorium.
In a superb “S.O.S.,” she beautifully blends with Gregg Goodbrod’s Sam, the love-of-her-life she scorned in 1979. Goodbrod is a strong Sam in acting and his solo “Knowing Me, Knowing You.” Nice to see him back in St. Louis after playing J.J. in “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” last summer at The Muny.
As the sultry Tanya, statuesque Dana Winkle, who was recently in the national tour of the elegant “An American in Paris,” shows off her slick dance moves in a cheeky “Does Your Mother Know.”
In a departure from the character’s typically frumpy appearance, sassy Rosie is portrayed by striking Dan’yelle Williamson, memorable as Dolores in “Sister Act” two summers ago. She’s convincing as a fierce determined woman and playful in “Take a Chance of Me.”
But Summerisa Bell Stevens as wide-eyed innocent Sophie just might be this show’s secret weapon. She’s one of the best Sophies I have ever seen – a total package who projects an innate sunniness and intelligence. So terrific as Doralee in last year’s “9 to 5,” she practically glows in “I Have a Dream,” “Honey, Honey,” and “Thank You for the Music.”
At first, David Sajewich seemed too old as Sky, but he and Stevens had so much chemistry, that it didn’t distract.
Reliable veterans Steve Isom and David Schmittou play Bill and Harry with their customary skill and crisp comic timing. They both nail their accents – Australian for Isom and British for Schmittou — and are admirably steady throughout, good sports in the dancing numbers.
The ensemble was noteworthy in the effective blacklight dream sequence “Under Attack,” which was thankfully not as silly as usual.
Of course, everyone does their part to raise the roof in the pull-out-all-the-stops finale, and when they come to “Waterloo,” no one wants this party to end.
I’m an unabashed fan of this musical – and it was my eighth time during the past 15 years. I compare it to the warm nostalgia of a “Gidget” movie from my youth. And yes, I cheerfully sang every word to “Dancing Queen” and “Mamma Mia!” at the curtain call – the audience is encouraged to do so (and I warned my neighbors to the right and left).
While it doesn’t matter if you have seen either the first or second movie, after viewing the just-released prequel-sequel, I did like that it shed more light on the backstory and motivations, so I thought of those things while watching this original show that sparked it all.
“Mamma Mia!” has sincere sentiment and its whole lotta fun vibe uplifted everyone. This production is one I’m not going to forget.
Stages St. Louis presents “Mamma Mia!” from July 20 through Aug. 19 at the Robert G. Reim Theatre in the Kirkwood Community Center, 111 S. Geyer Ave. For more information or to purchase tickets, call 314-821-2407 or visit: www.stagesstlouis.org. At least 18 shows are sold-out.
Photos by Peter Wochniak