Tuesday, July 24, 2018

"Mamma Mia" at the Ordway Center

Unless you've been living under a rock, you're probably aware that there's a new Mamma Mia! movie, a sequel to the 2008 smash hit movie adaptation of the smash hit jukebox musical (which ran for 14 years on Broadway and 19 years and counting in the West End) featuring the music of '70s pop sensation ABBA (phew, that's a lot of derivatives). But are you also aware that there is a brand new local production of the stage musical playing at St. Paul's Ordway Center for the Performing Arts for just three weeks? If you're thinking to yourself, "why should I spend more money to go see it live at the theater when I can just go to the movie, or watch it in my living room in a few months?" keep reading, because I will tell you why. What it boils down to is that firstly, live entertainment is always better than anything recorded could be, and secondly, this production is fantastically fun and surprisingly moving, performed by a mostly local and all fabulous cast. If you enjoyed either of the Mamma Mia! movies, you do not want to miss this one-of-a-kind LIVE Mamma Mia! experience! But hurry, unlike movies that last forever, you only have until August 5 to see this.

Donna and the Dynamos (Ann Michels, Christine Sherrill,
and Erin Schwab, photo by Rich Ryan)
Maybe it was just the high of the super fun high energy show, but watching it I almost thought the book was kind of clever in the way it weaves ABBA's greatest hits into the story of a young woman in search of her father. These silly pop love songs sort of make sense for these characters to be singing, and are almost kind of deep at times. But that can't be true, can it?! I totally fell for the story of young Sophie who, on the cusp of her wedding to the handsome Sky, reads an old diary belonging to her single mother Donna in which she finds three possible candidates for the father she never knew, and invites them all back to the Greek island where Donna runs a resort. Hijinks ensue as Sophie tries to figure out which man is her dad, while keeping it a secret from them and her mother. Add in Sophie's two best friends and Donna's two best friends, and you have a lot of boisterous fun. The search for dad doesn't go as expected, but in the end what matters is the family that's always there for you, no matter what DNA may say.

Here are ten reasons to see Mamma Mia! at the Ordway instead of (or in addition to) the new movie:
  1. This cast! NYC based director Martha Banta and the Ordway's former resident casting director Reid Harmsen have done a terrific job assembling a cast that is 89% local (compare that to the also wonderful cast of West Side Story at the Guthrie which is less than 50% local) and as good as (or better than) any cast you could see around the world. I'm not even mad that the lead role of Donna is played by one of the four non-locals in the cast, because Christine Sherrill is so incredible in the role, with an effortlessly strong and beautiful voice and the right mix of humor and pathos. #TCTheater faves Erin Schwab and Ann Michels are the best as Donna's friends Rosie and Tanya, respectively, both providing great support with a moment or two to shine (Erin in the fun and funny "Take a Chance on Me" and Ann with the fun and flirty "Does Your Mother Know" sung to the adorable Emilio Ramos). Young local star Caroline Innerbichler is perfectly cast as Sophie (the voice! the hair! the likeability!), and Patrick Connighan is perfectly charming as her Sky. I don't blame Sophie for not wanting to choose between these three dads because they're all pretty great, including two of my faves Robert O. Berdahl as the perfectly polished British former headbanger Harry, and Dieter Bierbrauer as Sam, the one Donna really loves (natch). Aloysius Gigl completes the trio as the charming Aussie Bill. And I have too many favorites in this gorgeous, diverse, and talented cast to mention them all here (Elena Glass and China Brickey as Sophie's pals, Ben Bakken as a surfer dude, to name but a few).

    Sophie reading her mom's diary with her friends
    (Elena Glass, Caroline Innerbichler, and China Brickey,
    photo by Rich Ryan)
  2. The original choreography. Have you ever seen people dance in scuba gear and flippers? I have, and you can too. But that's just one unique feature in the fun original choreography by Mitch Sebastian, which often involves the entire energetic ensemble. The constant movement and nice flow from big ensemble numbers to smaller character moments means no lulls in the fast-paced show. The three-song curtain call may be the best part of the show, and I've put in a request for them to record it as an exercise video so that I can do it in my living room every day, and have as much fun and be in as good of shape as the cast (I'll keep you posted). 
  3. The set will make you feel like you're on a Greek island. With a stage that ends in docks overlooking water spilling right into the audience, a beautiful white stucco building, and a changing backdrop of the ocean at different times of the day, it's like a mini vacation (set design by Rick Polenek).
  4. An awesome live band playing these techno pop songs and keeping the beat moving along, thanks to music director/conductor/keyboardist Raymond Berg (although I do wish they were visible and not hidden backstage somewhere).
  5. The costumes! What fun costume designers Rose Pederson and MaryBeth Gagner must have had designing both late '90s breezy beachy gear and those fabulous '70s jumpsuits (worn by our lead men and women alike!).
  6. You've never heard ABBA sound this good. Instead of movie stars who may or may not be able to sing, this cast is full of trained and experienced singers/actors/performers who make these songs sound even better than the originals, with more depth both vocally and emotionally.
  7. A musical that ends with a 20-year-old young woman not getting married, but instead choosing to travel and live life a bit before she makes a lifelong commitment. Don't worry, there's still a wedding for those who equate weddings with happy endings, but it's a more mature couple, and as the bouquet gets passed around to the guests after the wedding, the couple that ends up with it is surprising and delightful and such an important story to tell.

    how's a girl (or her mother) supposed to chose between these
    three dreamboats?! (Aloysius Gigl, Robert O. Berdahl, and
    Dieter Bierbrauer, photo by Rich Ryan)
  8. A story centered around women's friendship, a story not told often enough on stage or screen. So many musicals are centered around heterosexual love stories, and yes there are those here, but the driving force of the story is a love story between a mother and daughter, as well as love stories of female friends, both young and in their prime.
  9. Live is always better. There's no way to replicate the experience of being in the same room with the artists who are creating a unique and ephemeral piece of art before your eyes, sharing energy with everyone in the room.
  10. Support local arts and artists. We're living in tumultuous times for many reasons, including recent threats to arts funding. Rather than give your money to Hollywood, use it to help pay the salaries of people who live, work, and create art in your community, a community that is made better by the wonderful arts scene we have.
Mamma Mia! is the funnest of shows, with a gloriously cheesy poppy score and high energy dancing. But it's also a beautiful and touching story of family, with a message that while some families look different, all are valuable and important. A family can be a single mother and her daughter, or two men committed to each other, or a girl and her three dads, or the friends that are always there for you. What matters is the love that's shared in the family, not what it may look like to anyone else.

Mamma Mia! continues at the Ordway through August 5. Forget the movies and take a chance on live theater.