Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Take a Chance on 'Mamma Mia!'

Review of "Mamma Mia!"
Sarah Rudinoff, Kendra Kassebaum and Lisa Estridge in Mamma Mia! (Photo: Mark Kitaoka)


It really shouldn’t be a surprise that Mamma Mia 2 will be coming to movie theaters this summer. It is the sequel to the 2008 movie which was a huge hit mainly for the music and secondly for the cast. (It certainly wasn’t because of Pierce Brosnan’s singing.) Of course, this all came about after the stage musical that made its debut in London in 1999. Since then, the musical has had many tours around the world, but the current 5th Avenue Theatre production is the first in the Northwest to receive the rights to create its own refreshed version of the show. Many of us are only familiar with the film version, and for those, just know that this is a lot better.

Mamma Mia is different from a lot of traditional musicals in that all of the music comes from the pop rock group ABBA music library of hit tunes. There’s not a bit of new music added to the show and ABBA fans couldn’t be more satisfied.

Mamma Mia begins on the Greek island of Kalokairi. Sophie (Eliza Palasz) is preparing her wedding to Sky (Jordan Iosua Taylor) and would very much like to have her father walk her down the aisle. The problem is, she doesn’t know who he is. But she has a pretty good idea after reading selections from her mother’s diary. She invites three men from her mother’s past to her wedding and to stay at her mother’s taverna in hopes of finally meeting her dad.

Review of "Mamma Mia!"
Eliza Palasz and Jordan Iosua Taylor (Photo: Tracy Martin)
The story is set sometime in the 1990’s taking place twenty years after the “time of the flower power” and the birth of Sophie. For a story centered on a wedding, the institution of marriage is questioned a lot. Sophie’s mother, Donna, is played by Kendra Kassebaum (a real stretch since Kassebaum looks too young for the role!) who struggles to make ends meet on her little island paradise. The show hints of her strict Catholic upbringing and the shame she must have felt being an unwed mother in the 1970s. Her friends and former backup singers Tanya (Lisa Estridge) and Rosie (Sarah Rudinoff) share in her pain. Tanya has had at least three failed marriages and Rosie has never found a husband. The three (possible) fathers don’t fare much better. Sam Carmichael (Paolo Montalban) is divorced and Bill Austin (Matt Wolfe) would rather travel the world. Only Harry Bright (Cobey Mandarino) has a “better half” that he leaves at home.

At first it appears that Donna and Sophie have a great mother/daughter relationship, but then we quickly learn that mom would just like to keep her past in the past and not discuss details on who Sophie’s father is with her daughter. Though Sophie is determined to get married, she hasn’t had any real role model of what a real marriage looks like. Donna thinks Sophie is rushing things and Sophie thinks Donna is against all marriages in general. Though not so blatantly expressed, questions like “Do you need to be married to be happy?” and “Can you stay happy if you are married?” do arise throughout the show.

I found the tone of the movie version of Mamma Mia to be a bit more jaded on the subject of marriage than 5th Avenue’s production which keeps things light and fun. This new stage version is different in both the movie and touring show in other ways as well. The cast is smaller and the show feels a bit more intimate than the original which includes a lot of extra townspeople that are unnecessary. Instead of Donna complaining about her woes of “Money, Money, Money” to her neighbors, she jokes about it to her friends. When Sky goes on his bachelor night out, it is with a smaller group of friends, not half of the town.

Review of "Mamma Mia!"
Matt Wolfe, Paolo Montalban and Cobey Mandarino
(Photo: Tracy Martin)
It may seem strange for some to walk into a theatre production and already know all of songs ahead of time, but that is also a plus in that you already know what you in for. If you are not an ABBA fan, there is no need to attend. But there are also some drawbacks to Mamma Mia as well. For most other musicals, the songs are written after the plot. Here, the already-written songs are made to fit into the script. Not every song will fit the singer’s range and even when some of the lyrics are slightly changed, not all of the songs actually fit the scenarios that they are presented in. Overall though, the creators of the show (including ABBA member Bjorn Ulvaeus) did a pretty good job of putting it all together with the exception of “Under Attack.” The song is from ABBA’s last album and is not well known. Here it is used in a fantasy nightmare sequence that is just odd and probably would be better without. Really though, most everything else works.

For this production, the 5th Avenue Theatre Orchestra consists of four keyboardists, two guitarists, percussion, drums and bass which surprisingly is enough to pull this show off. The music sounds like you expect it too as if ABBA themselves were playing under the stage ready to make a surprise appearance after the show. The singers are great too. Each actor has a song to express their character. Eliza Palasz is incredibly cute as the immature Sophie telling half of the story with her body language, Estridge’s Tanya is a playful cougar enticing men half her age and while Paolo Montalban is no Pierce Brosnan’s, he does just fine. We also get treated to a lot of “dad dancing” as well which is awesome. But this is Kassebaum’s show to shine and as the “Dancing Queen” that she is, she appears to be having the time of her life.

If you go to Mamma Mia, be sure to stick around after the casting call for a mini dance party with the cast literally dancing in the aisles. The show continues through February 25, 2018 at the 5th Avenue Theatre located at 1308 5th Avenue in downtown Seattle. Tickets start at $29 and can be purchased online or by calling (206) 625-1900.