If Shakespeare had written a musical, it’d probably look like Mamma Mia.
This may sound blasphemous to the strict Shakespearean types, but the Bard’s comedies have some similarities to the musical based on ABBA. Mamma Mia features island mischief and actions that are the results of misunderstandings and love and has an unorthodox ending. (If there were dick jokes in Mamma Mia, I’d then be certain that Shakespeare is alive and writing.)
Similar to Shakespeare, Mamma Mia has some familiarity for audiences, whether you’ve seen the 2008 movie adaptation featuring Meryl Streep and Amanda Seyfield, or know who ABBA is. That familiarity makes the musical the perfect return to theater if you’ve been away for the past two years because of COVID closures.
Directed by Tony Rust, Cottage Theatre’s production captures the fun of ABBA’s music and Mamma Mia’s outlandish story, making the re-opening one to remember — and a way to show off the theater’s $2.5 million upgrades.
Planning for the renovations began in 2011. During her speech to the audience on Mamma Mia’s April 1 opening night, Cottage Theatre Executive Director Susan Goes called the building’s improvements “a dramatic costume change,” and she’s right. In addition to cosmetic improvements, Cottage Theatre has 50 new seats, and the layout of the seating is designed in a way that provides good views for everyone in the audience, a huge improvement from the previous version of the theater.
In the musical, Sophie (Kassi McGregor) is about to marry Sky (Matt Arscott). Sophie doesn’t know who her father is, but after reading her mother’s diary, she finds out that it could be any of three men: Harry Bright (Joshua Sayre), Bill Austin (John Wilson) and Sam Carmichael (Joshua Carlton).
Sophie arranges to have the three travel to an island off Greece, where she lives with her mother, Donna (Tracy Nygard). When Donna’s past lovers show up, they are a haunting presence for Donna as she prepares for Sophie’s wedding.
In her heyday, Donna and her two best friends, Tanya (Jennifer Mandeville-Schulz) and Rosie (Janet Rust), broke hearts, partied and performed on stage as Donna and the Dynamos. But as Sophie prepares for her wedding, Donna is more focused on fixing up the bed and breakfast on the Greek island than her hell-raising days.
Goes told the opening night audience that, like most theater production timelines interrupted by COVID-19, the casting of Mamma Mia had some changes. The musical was initially slated for 2020, so it had to wait about two years for its opening night. Some cast members stayed, and others joined the production earlier this year.
But if there were hiccups because of these casting changes during rehearsals or from the cast’s long recess from the stage, they didn’t show up for showtime. The cast doesn’t miss a beat in delivering ABBA’s music.
Nygard does well portraying the embattled Donna as she grapples with who she was and who she is today. While accompanied by the Dynamos, Nygard channels the superstar glamorous version of Donna from her old stage days (“Super Trouper”), as well as the vulnerable side as she prepares her only daughter for the altar (“Slipping Through My Fingers”).
As Sophie, McGregor captures all of the hope and optimism of the bride who wants to know which one of her mother’s ex-lovers is her biological father. McGregor and her friends — Ali (Madeline Paige) and Lisa (Stefhani Anderson) — take delight in reading Donna’s old diary and the seemingly bullet-proof plan to invite the three men to her wedding (“Honey, Honey”).
Of course, ABBA’s music requires high-quality choreography, and Janet Rust delivers as choreographer. Making use of every inch of the theater’s stage, Rust has the ensemble popping their heads through windows as they sing the chorus of “Money, Money, Money” and the cast tap dancing in swim fins in “Lay Your Love on Me.”
Rust’s efficient use of stage captures the chaos of a dance floor as bride-to-be Sophie investigates which one of the three men is her father in “Voulez Vous.” It’s a scene where McGregor also shines as she has speed dates with each man, grilling them about where they were 20 years ago.
If you’ve spent most of the past two years with your eyes glued to screens, streaming TV and movies, worried about missing the “old normal,” Mamma Mia is the perfect way to be reintroduced to the theater world. I mean, is there a better way to shake the theater cobwebs off than singing along to ABBA’s hits with the cast during the curtain call? ν
Mamma Mia is 7:30 pm Thursdays through Saturdays. Sundays are sold out. For more information, visit CottageTheatre.org.