COLUMBIA – I must admit that I went to see Toby’s Dinner Theatre’s production of “Mamma Mia!” in Columbia with some trepidation. On the one hand, my prior experiences with Toby’s productions have been excellent.
My main experience regarding “Mamma Mia!”, however, was with the 2008 film, of which despite its lavish Greek setting, I was not overly fond.
I need not have been worried. Toby’s “Mamma Mia!” is an outstanding show, combining wonderfully high-energy performances of the songs of ABBA with an unexpectedly moving story of family love, romance (both youthful and mature) and hope both lost and regained. The performances are also uniformly excellent, with unforced, naturalistic performances that make theater-goers feel as if they are seeing relationships unfolding before their eyes for the first time, rather than a stage production. Even better, the songs, as engaging as they are, serve more to tell us about emotions the characters are feeling, rather than being add-ons.
The story opens on the eve of a wedding: 20-year-old Sophie is about to be married to her boyfriend, Sky. While Sophie has a good relationship with her mother, one-time girl rocker and now responsible resort owner Donna, Sophie feels that she is missing something - a father to walk down the aisle with her at her wedding.
Sophie thus hatches a plan using her mother’s old diary, and she discovers that twenty years earlier, her mother had had relationships with three different men, each of whom could be her father.
Pretending to be her mother, she secretly sends each an invitation to the wedding, surmising that it will be easy to tell which one is her father. Unexpectedly, all three arrived for the wedding. Donna, predictably, is less than enthusiastic about suddenly meeting three old lovers. The father-candidates, for their part, are similarly surprised to learn of their until-then unknown daughter. Donna, aided by her former band-mates Rosie and Tanya, is then forced to come to terms with her own ambiguous feelings toward her past relationships.
Such a story could serve as a pretext for a shallow sex comedy against a backdrop of ABBA tunes or, worse, a melodrama. Instead, under director and choreographer Mark Minnick’s sure hand, the story is revealed to contain the underpinnings of Shakespearian comedy, where seemingly convoluted storylines are used to explore timeless themes of love and longing, leavened with occasional bouts of broad humor that somehow serve to elevate, rather than cheapen, the production. This take on the material also serves to make the catchy 1970’s tunes of ABBA take on a higher emotional resonance that is sometimes associated with their music.
The conclusion, which we will not give away here, is similarly the stuff of Shakespearean comedy, with satisfying, and sometimes unexpected, resolution of the various story arcs. Further, Toby’s production helps one realize this work’s subtle reliance on classical traditions. The mother’s name, “Donna,” comes from an Italian word for “lady of house,” as befits the owner of a resort and her status in the proceedings. Similarly, the daughter Sophie (or Sophia in Greek, meaning wisdom) becomes wiser over the course of the show.
The cast is uniformly superb. The two leading women, Heather Beck (Donna) and Maggie Dransfield (Sophie), have excellent chemistry. Heather compellingly conveys a woman who is both fiercely independent and rightfully proud of her accomplishments, both past, and present, yet is also wistful for companionship and relations lost; in short, she personifies adulthood. Maggie effectively embodies both the cheerful optimism and inexperience of youth in her Sophie. Jeffrey Shankle (Sam), Darren McDonnel (Harry), Russell Sunday (Bill), and Paul Roeckell (Sky) are each convincing as the invited intruders into Donna and Sophie’s world, as are Tess Rohan (Rosie) and Coby Callahan (Tanya) as Donna’s former bandmate.
Of course, any review of a musical must make mention of the actual music! The show addresses this beautifully. Each cast member displays a fine singing voice and complements the voices of the castmates well. Further, when Donna and her bandmates sing together, it is easy to believe that they were once actually a musical group, rather than actors playing musicians. While the voices of the cast are well-matched to the ABBA songs that they sing, the director has made the wise choice of not doggedly trying to make the cast to sound precisely like ABBA at every step; this decision, in this reviewers mind, enhances the dynamism of the production and the vibrancy of the audience’s experience. Toby’s also typically uses live music, rather than recorded, music, and “Mamma Mia!” was no exception. The six-piece ensemble contributed to the overall energy of the show, beautifully celebrating the spirit of ABBA far more effectively than a slavishly replica or pastiche ever could have.
Jukebox musicals are sometimes viewed as an excuse to string together unrelated popular songs with a paper-thin story, and my prior experience with the movie version of “Mamma Mia!” did not challenge this notion. Toby’s production of this show, with its excellent cast, spirited music, superb choreography and uplifting tone has, to my great delight, forced me to change my viewpoint. I highly recommend “Mamma Mia!” in this rendition, which runs through Sept. 9.
Note: “Mamma Mia!” contains mature themes, and there are occasional mild strobe and theater mist effects.