ESSEX — Director and choreographer JR Bruno has brought new elements to “Mamma Mia,” now playing at the Ivoryton Playhouse through July 28. For the most part, this “not your mother’s ‘Mamma Mia’ (to quote Jacqui Hubbard, artistic director) is delightful, thanks to some standout supporting performances, the energy of the young ensemble, and a marvelous Stephanie Gomeréz as Sophie.
The charming, if sliver-thin plot, by Catherine Johnson, is mainly an excuse to enjoy ABBA’s music, and the campy, 1970s disco numbers. Even if you’ve somehow never seen this ubiquitous show before, you’ll catch onto the story by the time the first number is over (“I Have a Dream”). Twenty-year old Sophie, about to have the white wedding of her fantasies, wants her father to give her away in old-fashioned style. A simple enough wish, one would think, except she doesn’t know who her father is.
Fortunately, she’s found her mother’s diary, written 21 years ago, and from her mother’s youthful romances, she’s discovered three men who are likely candidates. So she invites them all to the wedding, certain she’ll recognize her man at first sight. It’s a sweet twist on the conventional love story: Sophie already has Mr. Right (the adorable Sky, wonderfully captured by Jack Kay); she longs for Mr. Dad.
Meanwhile, Sophie’s mother, Donna (Laiona Michelle), is struggling to pay for improvements on the taverna she owns (“Money, Money”), as well as struggling to accept that her little girl is not only grownup, but conventional — so unlike her own young self (the charismatic Aliah James), lead singer of Donna and the Dynamos, and passionately independent, even when she finds herself pregnant and unsure of her baby’s father.
So the wedding occasions a reunion of the Dynamos (an absolutely terrific Carly Callahan plays cynical, oft-married Tanya, and a very funny Jessie Alagna plays wise-cracking Rosie), as well as everyone’s introduction to the three candidates for Sophie’s dad: Bill (the terrific and strong-voiced Dane Agostinis); Harry (a goofy and endearing Billy Clark Taylor); and Sam, Donna’s true love, played by a miscast Cooper Grodin, whose intensity puts him in another play. Director Bruno may have tried to inject some seriousness with this choice, and Sam and Donna do have a few serious moments, but Grodin is also too young for the role, and this muddies his scenes with Sophie.
Bruno’s other misstep lies in his direction of Michelle as Donna. In Act I (the less well-written of the acts), she comments broadly on her role rather than simply inhabiting it. This gives the beginning of the show a perplexing tone, since each character, and especially a major one, like Donna, needs total commitment in order to be effective — or even intelligible, given the slight script.
However, Michelle appears to be a different actress and a different Donna in Act Two. Here, her sorrow at losing her child to time (“Slipping Through My Fingers”), and her show-stopping howl of lost love in “The Winner Takes It All” are totally convincing; and she carries this heartfelt portrayal to the show’s end.
The other showstopper is Carly Callahan in every one of her numbers, but especially in the sizzling “Does Your Mother Know?” One only wishes the stage were larger to show off even more fully her fabulous dancing and unstoppable energy.
Gomeréz doesn’t stop the show — she carries it, committing to every moment she is onstage, singing with a beautiful and seemingly effortless voice, and equally strong and loveable in her comic and her serious scenes. It’s a performance one won’t forget.
Lighting Designer Marcus Abbott contributes greatly to the fun, by lighting Glenn Bassett’s set beautifully, and by creating nearly every disco effect an ABBA fan could wish for. Elizabeth A. Saylor’s costumes capture both the island look and the astronaut-inspired Donna and the Dynamo set pieces (watch an ABBA YouTube to see the verisimilitude). And Musical Director David John Madore has arranged and conducted the music with brio. It would take a hard heart (and arguably a tin ear) not to be dancing along with the buoyant cast by the end.
“Mamma Mia” runs through July 28. Performance times are Wednesday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Evening performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.
Additional matinee performances are on Saturday, July 6 and July 20 at 2 p.m.
Tickets are $55 for adults; $50 for seniors; $25 for students and $20 for children and are available by calling the Playhouse box office at 860-767-7318 or by visiting our website at www.ivorytonplayhouse.org (Group rates are available by calling the box office for information.) The Playhouse is located at 103 Main St. in Ivoryton.