“A Christmas Carol.” “Kings of Christmas.” “This Wonderful Life.” “Mamma Mia!”? The jukebox ABBA musical set on a sunny, summer island in Greece still seems an odd choice for the holiday show of the season, but the team at Acting Against Cancer stands by it.
In a note inside the program, director Charlie Meredith explains that at heart, “Mamma Mia!” has all the themes that we hold dearest during the holiday season: “The December/January holidays are a time of togetherness, whether that means the family you were born into, the family you found or something in between.” “Mamma Mia!” offers family dynamics of all kinds: a mother and daughter, a daughter and not one but three dads, a couple preparing to become each other’s family and friends who became family long ago.
Whether you agree with the time of year, there’s no question that 2018 was the perfect year to debut AAC’s production of “Mamma Mia!” The show comes practically on the heels of the star-studded Hollywood sequel “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” and Netflix’s pick up of the original 2008 movie. And a few catchy ‘70s tunes and an outlandish comedy about a bride-to-be trying to figure out which of the three men she invited to her wedding is her father serves as something of a healing balm to the many stresses of 2018… especially the holiday season.
Thus, the ever-versatile Henry Clay Theatre has been transformed into a sandy, sun-bleached taverna on a Greek island — just in time for the winter holidays.
Fans of the movie who never saw the show will be pleased to find all their favorite moments and more in the stage production. Fans of ABBA will find even more songs not in the movie, such as “Name of the Game” as Sophie (Grace Greenwell) implores Bill (Michael J. Drury) to admit that he’s her father, or “Thank You For the Music,” as all three dads reminisce on old times on the island with Donna (Julie Riehm McGuffey). And, of course, the groovy three-song finale after curtain call is worth the wait.
The best part of the show is Donna and her Dynamos, Tanya and Rosie (Anna Meade and Sydney Magers), and that’s as it should be. Their chemistry as old friends who never totally grew out of their girl power band (and never should) is irrefutable. It’s the kind of friendship everyone wishes they had: silly, supportive and rock solid after 20 years. But they also stand out individually. Magers’ comedic timing shines. Meade oozes confidence and wit as she rebuffs a bartender half her age (played by executive director and choreographer Remy Sisk) in “Does Your Mother Know?” McGuffey has four solos or near solos but loses no stamina in showing what a powerhouse she can be when “Winner Takes It All” comes around.
The electric quality of the Dynamos in no way means they were the only ones to watch. The three dads have delightful chemistry with each other and are each lovable in their own way: Drury’s Bill, adventurous and easygoing, Jared Burton’s Harry, a little confused but nonetheless sweet and eager, and then there’s Sam (Sean Donaldson). As the only tryst that actually hurt Donna at all, it would be easy to dislike Sam, but Donaldson and McGuffey’s portrayal of two very dramatic people who still clearly have very dramatic feelings for one another makes it so that by “S.O.S.,” you can’t help but want to shake them and tell them to work it out.
McGuffey’s dynamic Donna is believably matched with her daughter Sophie, played with both sweetness and spunk by Grace Greenwell. As the instigator of the plot, Sophie enjoys the most character growth in the show. Her spiral into confusion and regret in the fast-spinning “Voulez-Vous” and the stress-born nightmare sequence that follows in “Under Attack” make for some of Greenwell’s strongest moments. The role of Sophie’s fiancé, Sky, doesn’t come with quite as much material to work with, but Alex Roby gives him a playful charisma that complements Sophie. The ensemble, made up of taverna staff, guests and friends of the bride and groom aren’t just there for the sake of more singers and dancers but actually add to the atmosphere of the scene.
I checked out “Mamma Mia!” with two friends who definitely fall under the “family you found” category and with whom I’ve spent most of the holiday season. “We’re going to sing along,” they told me before it started, as if in warning. But that’s exactly what Acting Against Cancer was hoping for when they put on their production of “Mamma Mia!” By the finale, the audience was on their feet, clapping, singing and dancing along. Between the familiar bops and an energetic cast, the show feels more like a party than a well-behaved theater performance
So does all that make “Mamma Mia!” a holiday show? There’s no snow, no tinsel, and the closest thing to a red suit is a sequined disco suit. But it’s a great way to celebrate time with whatever kind of family you have. And if you’re feeling down or lonely this holiday season, it’s a fun show that shares a togetherness with the audience not found in just any theater experience.