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Saturday, January 14, 2017

Winning 'Mamma Mia!' Takes it All at the Hippodrome

Photo by Kevin Thomas Garcia
Everyone loves a beautiful white wedding especially when it takes place on a lovely sun-splashed Greek Island. It’s even more special if the bride is walked down the aisle with her proud father.  

Getting to the latter forms the plot of the popular jukebox musical Mamma Mia! which is making an all-too-brief return to Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre as part of its “final” farewell tour.

Under the direction of Phyllida Lloyd, a remarkably exuberant and talented cast brings the house down with outstanding musical performances, spot-on comedy, and solid acting when called upon during the show’s dramatic moments.  A wide variety of attire including spandex and  wet suits and brightly colored costumes at the end of the show adorn the energetic cast.  Those young, lithe men in the ensemble who were shirtless at times, well that was good costuming, too.   #hocoarts 

The set is simple with two basic structures that are turned around for scene changes.  It is enhanced, however, by the backdrop consisting of mainly blue horizontal lines denoting the merger of the sea and sky, which is further amplified by Howard Harrison’s hue-laden lighting design.  Together with the costumes, the production is lavishly colorful.

Based on the songs of the successful 70’s pop rock group ABBA that were composed by former band members Benny Andersson and Bj√∂rn Ulvaeus, British playwright Catherine Johnson managed to tie together seemingly unrelated songs to craft a story line around them that works.

Twenty year-old Sophie Sheridan (played superbly by Lizzie Markson), dreams of a perfect wedding where she marries her beau Sky (Dustin Harris Smith). She also wants her father to walk her down the aisle.  But who’s her daddy?  She never knew who her father was as she was raised only by her mother, Donna Sheridan (Betsy Padamonsky). 

Cashelle Butler, Betsy Padamonsky and Sarah Smith
Photo by Kevin Thomas Garcia
Donna owns a taverna on a Greek island and at one time was the lead singer of a pop trio Donna and the Dynamos along with Tanya (Cashelle Butler) and Rosie (Sarah Smith).

Sophie sneakily peruses her mother’s diary entries and determines the possibilities based on steamy episodes that took place just prior to her birth: Sam (Shai Yammanee), an architect; Bill (Marc Cornes), a travel writer; and Harry, a British banker (Andrew Tebo). Unbeknownst to her mother, she secretly invites all to her wedding feeling she will know who that man is. 

Much of the story is centered on how the three men interact with Sophie and how they explain their presence to Donna as well as the mother-daughter relationship that evolves over this two-day period.  But how that transpires up until the actual wedding and its surprising twist at the end (surprising only if you haven’t seen Mamma Mia! before) becomes the plot that is coaxed along by the music.

That music and the performances are a joy to behold.  Kevin Casey’s five-piece band is robust but at times too much so to allow some vocals to pierce through.

Not all of the ABBA catalog is on display; for instance, the popular “Fernando” is not performed.  Yet, many favorites like “Dancing Queen,” “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” “Take a Chance on Me” (my favorite) and “The Winner Takes it All,” and, of course, the title song, "Mamma Mia,"  help make the production soar.

Anthony Van Lasst’s choreography is precise with an abundance of energy.  The dancing in “Money, Money, Money” and “Voulez-Vous” are two good examples of that.  However, “Dancing Queen,” performed by Ms. Padamonsky, Ms. Butler and Ms. Smith, is a bona fide show stopper.

I am reluctant to say that Sarah Smith steals the show since all the leads and ensemble are so talented.  But let’s just say, she borrows it and forgets to return it.  

The bubbly Ms. Smith sparkles as Rosie, an unmarried free-wheeling soul, with an incredible command of physical comedy.  The moment she is onstage, a smile is triggered followed by a healthy dose of laughter as she meanders about.  In the comedic “Take a Chance on Me,” a duet with Marc Cornes, Ms. Smith kills it and not just by her antics but also her superb vocals.

Another member of the Donna and the Dynamos trio, Cashelle Butler, who plays the thrice-married Tanya, also demonstrates her comedic skills and lovely singing voice.  Her vocal chops are on full display in “Money, Money, Money,” “Chiquitta,” “Super Trouper” as well as “Dancing Queen.”

As Sophie, Lizzie Markson showcases a fine soprano voice as well as strong acting prowess.  “The Name of the Game,” “Under Attack’ and “I Have a Dream” are all well-performed.  Her dramatic interactions with Ms. Padamonsky as her mother Donna and Dustin Harris Smith as Sky are superbly played by all the actors, especially in scenes where there are notable confrontations.

Photo by Kevin Thomas Garcia
Ms. Padamonsky is sterling as Donna.  She is a commanding force onstage with her acting skills and gorgeous soprano voice.  As part of the trio in “Dancing Queen” Ms. Padamonsky excels.  She also delivers in “One of Us,” “SOS, a duet with Mr. Yammanee, “The Winner Takes it All,” and “Our Last Summer,” a duet with Mr. Tebo.

Mr. Tebo as Harry, Mr. Yammanee as Sam and Mr. Cornes as Bill act and sing very effectively. They each present plausible explanations on how they could be Sophie’s real dad, and combined with Donna’s uncertainty, muddies the waters keeping the audience in suspense. 

There are Donna’s two workers at the taverna.  One is Pepper, played by Austin Michael, who makes an unsuccessful attempt to woo Tanya.  Their number together “Does Your Mother Know” is hilarious.

The other is Eddie played by hunky and handsome Max Ehrlich.  All I can say is “Mamma Mia!”

The eight longest running show both on Broadway and London’s West End, Mamma Mia has been played everywhere on earth and perhaps two other planets.  If that weren’t enough, there is a popular film version with the same name.   Oddly, the musical never captured a Tony Award though it received five nominations in 2002.   That factoid is shrugged off by the 60 million who have seen the show worldwide.

The touring company is blowing through Baltimore faster than you can say “Mamma Mia.”  So quickly get your ticket and take a chance on this excellent production with its lively familiar music.  Surely, you will be dancing at your seats.

Running time: Two hours and 40 minutes.

Mamma Mia! runs through January 15 at the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw St, Baltimore, MD 21201.  For tickets, call Ticketmaster at 800-982-ARTS or visit ticketmaster.com or BaltimoreHippodrome.com.

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