"Mamma Mia!" basks in ABBA hits

Howard County Times

“Mamma Mia!” is such a relentlessly good-natured musical that even the characters’ uncertainty about paternity, anxiety about aging, and stress about a wedding seating chart are no more than convenient plot excuses for upbeat musical numbers. Crammed full of pop songs by the Swedish group ABBA, this 2001 Broadway musical is true to its exclamatory title; and the current production at Toby’s Dinner Theatre has great fun with a show that’s all about having fun.

Although “Mamma Mia!” is a shrewdly crafted entertainment machine, there is nothing coldly calculated or cynical about this pop culture confection. Its affectionate treatment of these pop hits from the 1970s and early 1980s is genuine, as are the nostalgic feelings that will be engendered in many audience members. That essential sweetness extends to the characterization and plotting. Even if your brain may have the occasional nasty habit of reminding you that this is silly and superficial material, your heart is likely to embrace that silly and superficial material.

It’s all the more surprising that “Mamma Mia!” works so well when you consider its genesis. The creators of the show started with a list of ABBA songs, after which writer Catherine Johnson wrote a script in which these songs illustrate a romantic story set on a Greek island. If this seems creatively improbable, well, it works.

The Toby’s production directed and choreographed by Mark Minnick benefits from strong casting and a snappy pace as it weaves together the romantic melodrama and such zestfully memorable songs as “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!,” “Lay All Your Love on Me,” “Take a Chance on Me,” “The Winner Takes It All” and, of course, “Dancing Queen.” If you didn't know you were at a dinner theater, you’d think you were at a disco.

Where that smart casting is concerned, this production is blessed to have such confident performers in the central mother-and-daughter roles. Donna Sheridan (Heather Marie Beck) is a free-spirited woman who runs a small hotel on a Greek island. One consequence of this single mother’s counterculture-era youth was that she has a 20-year-old daughter, Sophie (Maggie Dransfield), whose paternity was never clearly established. Both performers have complete command of their vocal delivery, and they also bring more dramatic substance to their roles than one typically finds in productions of “Mamma Mia!” Beck’s performance of “The Winner Takes It All” is especially powerful.

Sophie is about to marry a nice fellow who’s aptly named Sky (Paul Roeckell), but her wedding plans are complicated by her lifelong “Who’s my daddy?” questions. The enterprising Sophie secretly invites the three middle-aged guys who are the most likely paternal candidates: Harry Bright (Darren McDonnell), Bill Austen (Russell Sunday) and Sam Carmichael (Jeffrey Shankle). You can imagine Donna’s surprise when these three guys from her past show up on the island.

Two longtime friends of Donna, Tanya (Coby Kay Callahan) and Rosie (Tess Rohan), are not shy about offering her advice on how to handle old boyfriends. Nor are they shy about dipping into their suitcases and pulling out the costumes they wore years ago when they and Donna had a musical trio of their own. The outfits are so gaudy that even Cher might carp that they’re tastelessly over the top. As sure as you know there will be a happy ending, you can bet those outfits will be donned by Donna and her pals for an ABBA-scored performance.

Helping ensure that the glittery and goofy musical numbers hit with punchy authority is musical director Ross Scott Rawlings. If anything, the band under his direction sometimes is so propulsive that it rides over the vocals.

The scenic design by David A. Hopkins has blue- and white-painted architectural components that make us feel we’re on a Greek island. Less successful is the lighting design, also by Hopkins, which is too often underlit. Any story set on a Greek island should bask in the sun and not have gloomy dark zones more suitable for an Ibsen drama.

Fortunately, that surprising level of darkness hardly detracts from a festive production that celebrates the apparently Greek philosophy of dancing queens. Indeed, the happiness generated by this production doubtless will prompt some theatergoers to go see the sequel to the 2008 movie version, “Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again!,” which opens in theaters on July 20.

“Mamma Mia!” runs through Sept. 9 at Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Columbia, 5900 Symphony Woods Road. For ticket info, call 410-730-8311 or go to tobysdinnertheatre.com

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