By ALAN SMASON, Theatre Critic, WYES-TV (“Steppin’ Out“)
The Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts has typically pulled out all of the stops for their summer show every year. Last year they had Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast,” while in its most previous years the company produced “Disney’s ‘The Little Mermaid'” last year, a staged version of the 1939 film classic The Wizard of Oz two years ago and the proven crowd-pleaser Peter Pan in 2015.
So, when it was announced that the show selected for their summer run was the ABBA jukebox musical Mamma Mia!, expectations ran high. When Ricky Graham was attached to the project as its director, the feeling was this would be a slam dunk for both Rivertown and Graham.
But, curiously, a show that had such promise seems to sputter at times, when it should have had lots of sparks.
It’s not that there isn’t a great deal of trying, esprit d’corps or dedication by the cast. To be frank, there are a number of special moments in Mamma Mia! that raise the theatrical experience beyond the pedestrian. It’s just that there are a number of instances where the show misses its full potential and settles for very good when it might have basked in greatness.
There is acknowledgment of the huge attendant cost associated with having a live orchestra fill a theater with glorious sound. In their last outing, Me and My Girl, Rivertown employed music director and arranger Jefferson Turner, who led seven other talented performers in performing the score live. The results were quite profound and the crowd responded in kind. Even though their most successful previous productions have been musicals, the company has continued to rely on rented taped soundtracks. This has been a thorny subject for Rivertown for years due to their budget, but that move alone would breathe spontaneity and excitement into shows in general and this show in particular.
The rented tape background does have backing vocal tracks which are provided by the show’s performers and coordinated by Meghan Kessel as the show’s musical director. As these voices cannot be heard anywhere else, this makes Mamma Mia! a unique show for New Orleans audiences.
To his credit and those of the producers, Graham put together a talented cast, which is a mixture of seasoned veterans plus a goodly number of young actors beginning to ply their craft. Ticket sales have been off the charts because the combination of Rivertown’s merchandising to its core audience and the popularity of the ABBA repertoire make it irresistible. To find a ticket for this musical will be especially tough.
As Donna Sheridan, Ashley Smetherman Lemmler does a very good job of leading the cast in Catherine Johnson’s improbable story set in 1997. She is a woman who has raised her daughter Sophie (Leeann Hovis) as a single parent on a remote Greek island they have called home for two decades, but she has never revealed who the father was. Curious as to who her other parent may be, Sophie reads her mother’s diary from the summer she was conceived and surreptitiously invites her three possible fathers to her upcoming wedding on the remote Greek island they have called home for two decades. Hovis has a pivotal role in the show and she more than meets its demands with a beautiful voice and a charming countenance.
Meanwhile, it is revealed that Donna, besides being the former quintessential hippie child is also the former lead singer of Donna and the Dynamos. She welcomes back the other members of the trio, Tanya (Trina Beck) and Rosie (Lisa Picone Love), friends who are excited at the prospect of reuniting as well as seeing Sophie wed. It’s not long thereafter they are reminiscing together with improvised prop microphones in “Dancing Queen.”
Sophie’s intended is Sky (Jayden Heller), a former investment wunderkind who has been so smitten with his fiancée that he has decided to wander the world with her by his side. While he preferred to have a simple civil ceremony, he has given in to her desire to have a white wedding and is in the dark about her deed in inviting her three possible dads.
The three potential fathers are Sam Carmichael (Matthew Mickal), Harry Bright (Warren Hovis) and Bill Austin (Gary Rucker) and they all arrive to the island together, happy to meet up with Donna again, whom they erroneously believe invited them to the wedding. They are clueless as to the real reason they are there.
Two friends of Sky, Pepper (Garrin Mesa) and Eddie (Austin Anderson) help Donna run her taverna and organize the bachelor party intended to keep Sky busy the night before the wedding ceremony. The remainder of the ensemble cast provides needed support for the various dance numbers they sing to the ABBA repertoire, all of which are choreographed by Heidi Malnar.
For the most part, Malnar’s choreography works well to complement the popular ABBA songs penned by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus. “Super Trooper” and “Voulez Vous” are two examples in Act One that prove her skills. There are many instances of inventive movement throughout the show. However, Act Two’s nightmarish opener “Under Attack,” which Malnar attempted to craft into a tap number, misses the mark entirely. It seems to be just noisy and distracting and is a case where less would have been more.
The conflict Donna experiences when she recognizes the trio that may have fathered her child is revealed in the title song. Later, when she explains the dilemma to the other members of her trio, Tanya and Rosie follow with “Chiquitita,” an offer to help. Separately, Beck’s Tanya has an opportunity to take center stage in the well-choreographed “Does Your Mother Know? Picone Love takes her turn with Rucker as Rosie asks the world traveler, Bill, to “Take a Chance on Me.”
Mickal and Lemmler handle much of the emotional baggage in the latter portions of the book with songs like “SOS” and “The Winner Takes It All.” By the time the wedding ceremony scene plays out in “I Do, I Do, I Do,” there is a resolution that neatly ties everything together.
The simple, yet functional set design is rented through Stagecraft Theatrical, a company that provides sets for small theatre companies like Rivertown. This has probably realized savings for the company and prevented them from building a set that would have to be broken down and stripped for parts for future use elsewhere or else stored in a long-term facility.
While the set may be rented, Shelbie Mac’s artistic renderings certainly add charm and warmth to the overall design and Kate Jensen should be given kudos for ramping up the production with her colorful costumes that are a very special part of this show.
Directed by Ricky Graham, “Mamma Mia!” continues its run, Wednesday, July 17, with another added performance Thursday night, a Saturday matinee at 2:00 p.m. and a final Sunday night performance at 7:00 p.m. at the Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts, 325 Minor Street in Kenner, LA. All other evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. While some tickets remain and overflow tickets are available for most shows, the Sunday matinee is completely sold out and just a few tickets remain for Friday night’s and Saturday night’s performances combined.