They Can Dance, They Can Jive: The Sexy, Stylish 'Mamma Mia!'
The drive to Escondido is worth it for this sparkling showcase of Abba’s catchy dance hits
The cast of Mamma Mia! | Photo courtesy of Welk Resorts Theatre
I’ll admit it: I’d been reluctant to see Mamma Mia!. The only impression I had of it came from the trailer for the movie: Happy upper-class white people dancing around in swimsuits on a vacation to an idyllic Grecian island. People don’t have fun in serious art, I thought to myself, swirling my brandy snifter. (It didn’t help that I could count the Abba songs I knew on one hand—without dropping that glass.)
I’m so glad I reconsidered. Every movement of Mamma Mia! is pure delight; if you don’t feel like jumping out of your seat and moving your hips at least once, check your pulse. Yes: On an economic level, few of us can identify with leading lady Donna, who owns a hotel on the shores of the Aegean, or her daughter Sophie, a 20-year-old who’s about to have the bonanza destination wedding of her dreams. But as my dad has to remind me, everybody puts on their pants one sequin-covered leg at a time, and the driving conflicts here are relatable on a personal level. Having come of age in the freewheeling ’70s, Donna was never one for settling down, and can’t identify with her daughter’s desire for the white-picket-fence life; Sophie, meanwhile, has never known her father, though she’s narrowed it down to three possibilities—none of whom have seen Donna in 21 years; all of whom Sophie has invited to the wedding without her mom’s knowledge.
Olivia Hodson is indomitable as Sophie, capable of commanding attention (and strong notes) through sheer enthusiasm in the larger moments, while retaining the ability to rein it in for the smaller reactions—watch her when an emotional turn is happening elsewhere, and you can see her working through it moment by moment in character (you can’t take that for granted in a Broadway musical, especially this far removed from opening night). Donna is played alternately by Natalie Nucci and Misty Cotton; at my performance, Nucci’s experience as a choreography supervisor and dance teacher shined. Even if I couldn’t see her expressive face, I would still know at every moment what her character was feeling through the way she moved.
She forms part of a fantastic trio with friends Tanya (Barbara Schoenhofer) and Rosie (Nancy Snow Carr); they reunite their old singing group for a dazzling performance of “Super Trouper,” whose perfect complex opening harmony brought unexpected tears to my eyes—seriously. (Definitely the most poignant song ever named after a brand of stage spotlight.) Singing aside, Carr and Shoenhofer are very funny physical comedians; director Larry Raben and choreographer Karl Warden clearly recognized this, sending them all over the stage in poses and contortions that are by turns sexy, stylish, and slapstick. This exuberance so animates the female cast members that there are times you notice the men are a little static by comparison.
Dad candidate number one, David S. Humphrey’s Sam (also played by David Engel) brought the mood down for me whenever he spoke, somewhat wooden, even queasy; though that may be due to the distant, conflicted nature of his character, since he boogies with the best of them and belts out a sonorous baritone whenever the music starts. Dad candidates two and three, Bill (Lance Arthur Smith) and Harry (Mike Bradford) both bring their own flavor of charming to the ensemble. Bellhops Pepper and Eddie (Chris Bona and Jake Bradford) and fiancé Sky (Richard Bermudez) round out the named cast with some acrobatic dance moves of their own, most notably in a hilarious swim-flippered chorus line.
Ultimately, the story is straightforward and doesn’t hold many surprises, but that’s okay, because its purpose here is to string together appropriate moments to showcase Abba’s greatest hits. If I was unfamiliar before, consider me a fan now. From disco favorites like the title track, the spicy “Gimme, Gimme, Gimme,” and triumphant “Dancing Queen” to heartfelt ballads like the pointed “The Winner Takes It All” and sweet “I Have a Dream,” each number is a new treat to savor plucked from a box of chocolates. Even “Under Attack,” which briefly dresses everyone in Classical Greek finery for a dream sequence, has its place.
So—is it Serious Art? Nah; but it’s not trying to be. Is it a super-fun way to spend an evening? Heck yes, especially if you’ve got kids who like to sing along. Escondido might be a bit of a drive for us non–North County folks, but since Welk Resorts puts on just a few shows a year, the production budget has a lot of room to shine, especially in wild outfits by costume coordinator Janet Pitcher. I only regret waiting so long to make the drive; it’s worth it, so catch it while you still can!
at Welk Resort Theatre through February 24
Tickets at welkresorts.com