Fort Worth — What is there left to say about Mamma Mia! that hasn’t already been said, when you get right down to it? It’s a phenomenon, a musical juggernaut. On any given day, there are seven performances of Mamma Mia! playing all around the world. Your aunt saw it in New York—twice. Essentially, every demographic who would’ve wanted to see it has seen it. So why put on the umpteenth production of the eighth-longest running musical on Broadway?
Because, as all but the most jaded critic must admit, it’s a heckuva lot of fun. It taps directly into your junk-food pleasure centers, and the audience is having too good a time to really notice that it’s utter fluff, with a plot held together with sequins and tape. But with frustratingly catchy songs from Swedish super-group ABBA, and a focus on strong, loving female relationships, there’s a reason it continues to charm audiences, year after year, in city after city. Under the direction of frequent collaborator Tim Bennett, Casa Mañana has put up a faithful, fizzy staging of Mamma Mia! for the first locally produced, professional production of it in North Texas. There are some imperfections, but more standout performances.
For the eight people who don’t already know the plot, the musical opens on the fictional Greek island of Kalokairi, where 20-year old Sophie (Chelsea Williams) is about to get married to the love of her young life Sky (Anthony Fortino), somewhat against the wishes of her free-spirited, ex-hippie mother, Donna (CJ Greer). Donna herself is a single mother, never married, who never revealed the identity of Sophie’s father. Yearning for her father to give her away at her wedding, Sophie combs through Donna’s diary full of her exploits during the 70s and finds three possible candidates: Sam (Christian Whelan), an architect; Harry (Michael Brian Dunn), a posh British banker; and Bill (Michael Visconti), an Australian travel writer. She then invites the three men to her wedding, without explaining the situation to any of them, assuming that she’ll feel an instant connection to her real father. The three men, along with Donna’s best friends/former bandmates and the wedding party, all converge on the tiny island for the wedding.
Shenanigans, naturally, ensue, but of course we all end up happily ever after. If you can take the show on its own terms—a fairy tale, as the opening number suggests, held together by the tenuous thread of its songs—then it’s an enjoyable night out. But best not to freight it with too much meaning or too many expectations.
That being said, definitely exceeding expectations in her Casa Mañana debut is Chelsea Williams as Sophie, our younger protagonist. In a part that could, in less deft hands, come off as treacly or flighty, Williams gives a charming, emotionally grounded performance, and her voice is exceptionally well-suited to the role. CJ Greer has some lovely moments as Donna, particularly towards the latter half of the show. Her back-to-back renditions of the tender “Slipping Through My Fingers,” sung as she helps Sophie dress for the wedding, and the bitter, bombastic “The Winner Takes It All,” sung to an old lover who spurned her, showcase both her emotional range as an actress as well as her vocal range.
Cheryl Allison does her best to steal each scene she appears in with her performance as Donna’s much-married friend Tanya, and takes the opportunity offered by the raunchy number “Does Your Mother Know?” to really belt it to the rafters. M. Denise Lee as Donna’s other best friend Rosie has some nice comedic business throughout, and her sly performance of “Take A Chance On Me” is a highlight. The three potential dads all have some nice moments, but Michael Brian Dunn’s Harry deserves particular mention; he shifts nimbly between moments of ridiculousness and some truly touching moments with Sophie and Donna.
The production benefits from the efforts of music director/conductor Edward G. Robinson, whose experience with this particular show is extensive—he served as the musical director of the North American and U.S. premieres of the show, and was the musical supervisor of its first national tour. The orchestration is lush and exactly as ’70s as you want it to be, though it occasionally overpowered the actors’ vocals, despite their mics. The decision to utilize a pit ensemble acts a double-edged sword—at times, the backing vocals add strength and a certain Phil Spector “wall of sound” effect, but at other times they too can overpower the onstage performances. While Abbey O’Brien’s choreography is excellent in some sequences, particularly those involving the ensemble en masse (the sequence during “Gimme, Gimme, Gimme” is especially good), some of the actors seemed to struggle with timing.
Mamma Mia! knows exactly what it is, and what its audience wants, and it gives it to them in spades; Casa Mañana’s production is no exception. As our heroines get their happy endings and the curtain closes, the show transforms into an extended group sing-along, showcasing some of the bigger ABBA hits from the show and concluding with possibly the band’s most iconic song, “Waterloo.” If you’re not at least swaying along by then, even grudgingly, check your pulse.