Farmer's Branch — Disco balls, colored lights, costumes sexy or outrageous, and plenty of nicely packed beefcake and—what’s the female equivalent, cupcake?—on display. Plus, the soundtrack songs of a certain generation, all those ABBA tunes in an endless stream of catchy melodies and lyrics that…rhyme.
What’s not to like? If you like Mamma Mia!, that is.
Once in a Greek-island blue moon, a critic feels the need to warn readers that “we” aren’t a particular fan of a work being reviewed. But we are professionals, dear readers—and our issues with the ABBA earworms that haunt us for days are simply irrelevant.
The audience crammed into a sold-out house for The Firehouse Theatre’s second-night performance of opening weekend was loud and enthusiastic. They sang along, swayed, and waved hands gently in rhythm to the music. Some claimed to have seen this musical an astonishing number of times—dude, for real?—and the whole thing seemed to bring out the uninhibited high-school juniors (disguised as grown-ups) in the theater.
That is to say, Firehouse’s production, directed with heart and verve by Bruce R. Coleman (of TFT’s The Music Man last season)—and with terrific choreography from Kelly McCain (who also did TFT's wonderful Bright Star)—made its audience very happy.
The Mamma of the piece is Donna (Lindsay Hayward), 20 years on from her career as an out-there pop singer, running a cute but hardscrabble taverna/inn on a small Mediterranean island. Her daughter Sophie’s getting married, and there’s all manner of “unbeknownst” stuff coming her way: her erstwhile girl-group is coming to revive the old days of “Donna and the Dynamos”…and Sophie has invited three of Donna’s ex-flames, the one’s she thinks (from a quick read of Mom’s diary) might include the Dad she’s been looking for.
A first instinct is to say that choreography carries the production, both in outright dances (the men’s flipper chorus to “Lay All Your Love on Me” is hilarious) and ingenious, vibrant ensemble movement (as in the pyramidal ensemble arrangement and grasping hands of “Gimme, Gimme! Gimme!)—but the singing is fairly fine as well. The cast includes several stand-out voices, and an ensemble that sounds great en masse, or split up into cheerfully competing male-female choruses. Musical director Erin McGrew Herndon’s five musicians—she’s on keyboards—keep things lively, though occasionally they’re a tad too forceful for some of the solo singing.
Notable singers include Ken O’Reilly (playing Sam, one of the three “Dads”), whose marvelous voice goes begging in Act One, then breaks out with stunning work in both “S.O.S.” and “Knowing Me, Knowing You” in Act Two; Anna Chase Lanier as sweet-voiced young bride/daughter Sophie, and her two tuneful bridesmaid friends, played by Alexis Farrell and Theresa Kellar; Sherry Etzel and Arianna Movassagh as Rosie and Tanya, Donna’s pop-singing cohorts (whose comic chops are as fun as their singing); and Ryan C. Machen as Sky, Sophie’s fiancé, who traded in stocks and bonds for a beach and a girl. And did I mention the ensemble? Good…because they were.
Scott Bardin (who plays Bill) and Robert San Juan (Harry) aren’t asked to do much in the singing line, but are charming as the two other possibilities for Sophie’s long-lost father. Bardin has a funny duet of “Take a Chance on Me” with Etzel’s direct-approach Rosie; and San Juan (a dreamy Raul Julia ringer, as if he hasn’t been told that before) creates real chemistry with Hayward’s proud Donna in “Our Last Summer.”
Hayward’s Donna has a fierce, strong edge to her that tells the story of some difficult single-mom years for this independent woman. She’s touching in “Slipping Through My Fingers,” a song of memory and love as she dresses Sophie for her wedding—and it’s a joy to see her happiness at the end of the tale. It’s hard to tell, though, if Hayward will settle into the role. She seemed to struggle with several numbers (though was strong in a few others), but on the night reviewed, any real evaluation was blocked by some desperately bad body-mike issues whose bumping, thumping and static got between us and her performance. Eventually it sounded as though the amplification of Donna’s voice had dropped out almost entirely, or been adjusted to a volume much lower than that of the other performers. One hopes the production staff, including well-respected sound designer Richard Frohlich, will get to the root of the problem.
Sakura Brunette’s costumes are stylin’, whether she’s creating ensemble beachwear in softest white cottons and khaki, or out-doing David Bowie in stretch satin, fringe, and light-catching lamé for the Dynamos’ vintage stage outfits. David Walsh’s set design for Donna’s taverna is of soft-stuccoed walls and arches, narrow stairways leading (we assume) to views and romance, and Santorini-blue windows and doors—used cleverly to create Laugh-In style moments where the whole cast pops out of one or another to sing a line, or do a collective “take” on the main action onstage. It’s well lit by lighting designer Adam Livingston, who also has fun playing with disco balls, sweeping colored spots, and black light (remember that?) for a spooky dream sequence.
Still not a huge fan of ABBA (though I respect their knack for memorable melodies) or of the songs shoehorned into Mamma Mia! that almost fit the emotional situations and the characters…but irritatingly, not quite.
But TFT, as usual, has put together a deep bench of talent and turned them loose on the Greek isles for fun and frolic—just the breezy, beachfront ticket for a dog-days summer night.