SUNDANCE — It’s summer: time for air conditioning, bright colors, light entertainment, maybe camping or a trip to an exotic locale or at least the beach. Or just forget the packing and enjoy the essence of summer in just one evening right here in Utah with Mamma Mia!, the award-winning musical now playing in the deliciously cool air up at the Sundance Summer Theatre‘s Eccles Outdoor Stage in collaboration with Utah Valley University.
Mamma Mia! (music and lyrics by Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson—the B’s of ABBA) takes place on a sunny Mediterranean island where one youthful summer, Donna Sheriden (played by Dianna Graham) embraced the 60’s spirit of free love. Twenty-one years of single motherhood later, her daughter, Sophie (Rilyn Gardner), is engaged and dreams of a traditional wedding complete with the walk down the aisle on the arm of her father. Unbeknownst to everyone else, Sophie uses her mother’s name to invite her three possible fathers, who are ignorant of her existence, back to the island for a little reunion. To her surprised dismay, on the eve of her wedding all three of them actually show up. Sound heavy? The plot is actually as light, vivid, and fun as a bunch of party balloons.
Mamma Mia! is a “jukebox,” meaning the story exists as an excuse to showcase the works of one band. No matter what your age, if you have ears you’ve heard the music: “Super Trouper,” “Lay All Your Love On Me,” “Dancing Queen.” From 1974 to 1982 Swedish pop group ABBA was top of the charts, phenomenally popular around the world. While disco as a musical style went the way of the pet rock (ask the grandparents), ABBA’s sparkly songs kept being played by (maybe slightly embarrassed) fans until this musical brought them roaring back into popularity.
Director Matthew Herrick’s staging of Mamma Mia! is fast paced and engaging enough to make anyone an ABBA fan. The cast is listed alphabetically in the program as “starring,” which highlights the reality that everyone in the cast shines. The unnamed ensemble of singer/dancers is packed with energetic talent, not only supporting the story, but also keeping the show moving by dancing furnishings on and off during the fast set changes. One unforgettable dance is performed wearing scuba fins (choreography by Becky Wright Phillips and costume design by Dennis Wright). It’s refreshing that the performers come in assorted shapes, sizes, and even ages: grey haired Father Alexandrios (Nolan Goodwin) earned delighted cheers from me with his surefooted disco moves.
Each of the major named characters has a chance to individually strut their stuff, and strut they do, rather like courting birds in the case of Rosie’s (Jocelyn Hansen) and Bill’s (Matt Dobson) hysterical, “Take a Chance on Me.” Sanford Porter as Harry Bright is touching with, “Our Last Summer.” Kerilyn Johnson as Tanya pulls off an amusing, not creepy, “cougar” attitude in, “Does Your Mother Know.” Best of all is Graham’s delicately poignant portrayal of a mother dressing her daughter as a bride in, “Slipping Through My Fingers.”
The only real problem with this production may be inherent in that the show is really about female relationships. The men in the plot are rather like Ken dolls, accessories to the more important women. Sam Carmichael (Shawn Stevens) just doesn’t seem to be a real enough character to be a match for the strong Donna. Even worse, the relationship between bride Sophie and her fiancé Sky (Duncan Johnson) is completely without spark; they come across less like a courting couple and more like two kids on an awkward date.
Despite the few smaller flaws (get that poor girl a swimsuit that doesn’t ride up painfully), the show overall is a fine way to spend a memorable summer evening. Just make sure to stay until the end, just like the way waiting until after the credits of a popcorn movie to see the final secret scene. Don’t forget to bring a blanket—on stage it might be Greece, but in the bench seating it is a high mountain forest.