In Community Little Theatre’s production of ‘Mamma Mia’ love conquers most … but cast captivates all
By Rob Tukey Special to the Sun Journal August 15, 2019
Mamma Mia!! You’ve been invited to a gala wedding on a Greek Isle in the Mediterranean. What could be grander? Perhaps being treated to a parade of memorable pop music, rocking choreography and a vast array of talented performers?
It is the last decade of the 20th century. At her rustic villa overlooking the tranquil Mediterranean Sea, owner Donna Sheridan (Eileen Messina) is hyper-focused on overseeing final preparations for her 20 year old daughter Sophie’s wedding. Donna has, for 15 years, operated the villa as a hotel aand tavern with limited financial success as the consequence of an unplanned pregnancy some 21 years before. The former leader of the ’70s chick band Donna and the Dynamos, now a single mother abandoned the nomadic and glamorous world of show biz to provide a stable home life for her daughter as a single mother.
Swarms of guests will be arriving momentarily for what is certain to be a time of lavish merriment encircling the big event. Ouzo and Champagne Cocktails will flow as the large guest contingent basks in the sun and swims on the nearby beach.
Ah, but the plot has thickened even before guests arrive. Three months prior to the scheduled nuptials, Sophie (Sophie Messina, Eileen’s real life daughter) has surreptitiously read her mother’s diary. In it she finds clues to the identity of her father, whom she has never met and about whom Donna has always been secretive. The diary chronicles a summer of serial romances which point to three men as candidates for her paternity:
—Sam Carmichael (Gerry Therrien), an architect who originally shared the dream with Donna of building a small villa on the island;
—Harry Bright (Nathan White), formerly a head-banger rocker, now a successful British banker; and
—Bill Austin (Chad Jacobson), an Australian adventurer, world traveler and writer.
In her youthful identity crisis, Sophie fantasizes that she will know which of the men is her father. So she writes to each in her mother’s name to come to the island for the wedding. This, she dreams, will certainly reveal her father who will then walk her down the aisle.
And so the stage is set.
And an eye-appealing stage it is, featuring a tantalizingly Mediterranean white stucco and turquoise blue Taverna, portico and courtyard. A few adobe roof tiles in disrepair and minor cracks in exterior walls add to the rustic ambiance but also allude to the difficulties Donna has experienced dealing with bank managers to keep her business solvent. The courtyard by the Taverna is where most of the action is presented, but clever rotating sets allow rapid changes as the play unfolds in a series of eight distinct scenes in Act 1 and six scenes in Act 2.
Multiple and rapid costume changes are eye-catching as the glitz factor escalates throughout the show.
The live band backstage is terrific as it presents the familiar music of ABBA. The large ensemble cast performs yeoman’s work as stage hands, wedding guests and choral support of the iconic soundtrack, which includes “Mamma Mia,” “Chiquitita,” “The Winner Takes It All,” “Take a Chance on Me,” “Dancing Queen” and many more. The extensive series of transitory scenes use these songs as vehicles to develop the storyline.
The theater aisles (and thus the audience) become an extension of the stage as wedding guests arrive via those avenues. And, in a spectacular finale, the aisles again become filled with the cavalcade cast as audience participation is encouraged and exhorted.
But straightaway to the action and intrigue. Commencing with the arrival of Sophie’s bridesmaids, Lisa (Janelle Raven) and Ali (Megan “Birdie” Record), Sophie discloses to them her scheme of finding her father. She reads excerpts from her mother’s diary (“we danced, we kissed and… ‘dot-dot-dot’), the ellipsis a euphemism for passion unleashed on three separate occasions with Sam, Bill and Harry. With the number “Honey Honey,” Lisa and Ali become co-conspirators in the plot to uncover Sophie’s father’s identity and to keep their presence secret from mother Donna.
Next down the aisles appear “The Dynamos,” Donna’s bandmates of yore — Tanya (Jennifer McClure Groover) and Rosie (Michelle Schmitt).
And last, on cue and as one could predict, Sam, Bill and Harry arrive and encounter Sophie, who tips them off that she is responsible for their invitations, not Donna. To cover her real intent, she says she intends to surprise Donna with the presence of her old friends. Sam is most concerned as he recalls Donna’s last words to him were “I never want to see you again.”
After one more courtyard number (the title song “Mamma Mia”), a quick set transformation finds Donna, Rosie and Tanya in Donna’s bedroom where they wonder if they still have the musical chops to pull off a performance at the bachelorette party that evening (“Chiquitita,” “Dancing Queen”).
A scene shift to the beach finds the groom, Sky (Christopher Hodgkin), spearheaded by best friends and hotel help Eddy (Danny Gay) and Pepper (Noah Keneborus), planning his bachelor party. A terrific song and dance number follows with the men’s chorus performing a lively high step wearing swim fins.
Another cleverly played ensemble scene follows, providing each possible dad a seminal moment with Sophie. Here, each recognizes a convincing timeline from his romantic rendezvous with Donna to the birth of Sophie that indicates that he is her father.
Sam, Harry and Bill independently now decide to assume the mantle of “Dad” and offer to walk Sophie down the aisle. Sophie is suddenly faced with this new wrinkle in her wedding plans. Act 1 ends.
Act Two opens with a ghostly nightmare scene as Sophie’s subconscious wrestles with the problem of the three dads. In an eerily lighted and fog enveloped tableau, her bed swirls helter skelter as she is visited by all three fathers in a madcap wedding hallucination. She finally finds sudden wakefulness on the ground in the courtyard where Donna discovers her obviously distraught daughter. Realizing her daughter’s troubled condition, Donna asks if she can help. Sophie lashes out and dashes away.
In all the swirling subterfuge and angst, Eileen Messina brings wonderful depth and soul to her character with compelling featured solos, notably “The Winner Takes it All” and “Slipping Through My Fingers.” She draws you into her emotional ambiguity and one is hard pressed not to choke up a bit.
Daughter Sophie displays great command and subtlety in her portrayal of the bride-to-be in need of a father.
Jennifer Grover (Tanya) and Michelle Schmitt (Rosie) are delightful as “The Dynamos,” bringing to life the stellar ABBA songs known to all.
Additionally, Tanya’s number, “Does Your Mother Know,” furthers her persona as yet the ultimate seductress as Sky’s friend Pepper pursues her. The backstory of her three marriages resonates as she keeps Pepper at arm’s length while simultaneously appreciating his interest as testimony that she’s “still got it.”
Rosie, meanwhile, shows her seductive prowess as she entices Harry with an alluring and funny rendition of “Take A Chance on Me.”
As each of the possible fathers wrestles with his conscience, it becomes obvious that they all have developed a paternal connection to Sophie and a renewed admiration for Donna.
Suffice it to say, a wedding takes place with a few twists and turns. It is Donna who walks her daughter down the aisle and in a confessional moment in the ceremony declares she doesn’t know who might be Sophie’s dad. Sophie makes a decision worthy of Solomon and wedding vows are exchanged, but … dot-dot-dot!
If you have seen “Mamma Mia” before at the cinema or on stage, your heart will be warmed by this production. Ambitious by community theater standards, for Director John Blanchette, “Mamma Mia” is clearly a labor of love. This LA Community Little Theater musical is overflowing with talent, heart, commitment and passion. If you have never seen “Mamma Mia,” or if you have never enjoyed the energy and intimacy of local theater, here is a fine place to begin. This vibrant musical is brought to life by a fine cast and an overwhelming number of volunteers; the entire company is deserving of a standing ovation. But it is unambiguous, this show belongs to Donna and The Dynamos.