It may not be profound, but it’s hard to think of a production as eager to please as the jukebox musical Mamma Mia! Based on the hits of ABBA — with a book by Catherine Johnson and music and lyrics by ABBA members Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, as well as songs by Stig Anderson — the musical is frothy and intoxicating.
Now being staged by Aurora Theatre in a version that runs through April 22 and then transfers to the Ferst Center for the Arts at Georgia Tech in June, it should do boffo business at both locations for the company.
Justin Anderson has become the go-to local director for musicals, and typical of him, this show is well-crafted and envisioned. The love he and the Aurora staff share for musical theater is palpable.
This version has an excellent cast, anchored by Kristin Markiton (seen memorably in last year’s The Bridges of Madison County, also at Aurora) as Donna Sheridan, a former singer who is now on the Greek island of Kalokairi. Decades before, she was a singer and member of the band Donna and the Dynamos. These days, however, she is raising her daughter Sophie (Hannah Church), who is about to be married to Sky (Nick Arapoglou).
Sophie has never met her father and often wonders who and where he is. Hence, she invites the three most logical candidates — Sam Carmichael (Chris Kayser), Bill Austin (Travis Smith) and Harry Bright (Greg Frey), all of whom dated her mother. Meanwhile, Donna has asked her friends and former bandmates Rosie (Marcie Millard) and Tanya (Terry Henry) to the wedding too.
It takes a little time for this take of Mamma Mia! to find its groove. The first few group numbers seem almost on overload. As inventive and spirited as Ricardo Aponte’s choreography can be, it feels a little manic at first — with ensemble players leaping and somersaulting at break-neck pace — and a little crowded on the stage.
Yet this show really finds its groove as the characters take shape and that endearing ABBA songbook keeps churning away — from “Dancing Queen” to “The Winner Takes it All” to a terrific, superbly choreographed version of “Super Trouper” by the Dynamos. Some of the quieter numbers really stand out as well, such as a lovely duet between mother and daughter on “Slipping Through My Fingers.”
Such was the case with the recent Memphis and In the Heights, both coproductions with Theatrical Outfit — every role here, even the smallest, feels snugly cast. The ensemble players are versatile and exceptionally talented and lead much of the action for the infamous encores.
Kayser may not have the singing chops of his colleagues, but he makes his Sam fully dimensional, someone who really seems to care about Donna and their past together. It’s also something of a perverse thrill seeing such a serious actor jiggle around to “Voulez Vous,” the Act One finale.
Henry headlines a joyous “Does Your Mother Know,” but Millard and Smith’s “Take a Chance” is the comic highlight of the production, as Rosie comes after Bill with little subtlety. Church is an appealing presence too, after some shaky initial moments.
At the heart of this all is Markiton — and her magnificent charisma and voice feels right whether she is belting out a number with her Dynamos or by herself. She doesn’t wink at the audience at what is going on or the songs that will follow — something even some touring performers have done — but instead plays her character straightforwardly, minus the camp. Her Donna seems resigned to her life now on her island, but she has never forgotten her flamboyant days — and relishes the chance to revisit them, even briefly.
Julie Ray’s set nicely captures the taverna this all takes place on, while music director Ann-Carol Pence and her band zip effortlessly through the numbers. Credit, too, should be given to lighting designer Kevin Frazier for some innovative moments throughout.
Mamma Mia! hit Broadway shortly after 9/11 and became a commercial blockbuster — as well as a much-needed tonic for New York audiences. Now one of the longest running musicals in Broadway history, this has become a cultural phenomenon across the world, paving the way for an excruciating 2008 movie version and a sequel scheduled for later this summer.
I’ve seen Mamma Mia! four times now, and several of the last times as I’ve settled into my seat, I’ve wondered why I was seeing it again. When the production is over, though, I remember exactly why — especially when it’s done right. This isn’t a huge creative stretch for Aurora, but it’s a sumptuously mounted crowd-pleaser. It wants nothing but to put a smile on its audiences’ faces, and it does so here in spades.
No one in town is mounting musicals the way Aurora is doing now.