Saturday, July 07, 2018

Take a Chance on Mamma Mia! at Toby’s

Cast of Mamma Mia! playing at Toby's Dinner Theatre
Photo: Jeri Tidwell Photography

Twenty year-old Sophie is planning a big white wedding with a picturesque Greek island as the perfect setting. Her fiancée, Sky, is a handsome young man who is madly in love with her. All that’s needed is for her father to proudly walk her down the aisle. #hocoarts

But who’s her daddy? That question is the central plot line in the vivid spectacle Mamma Mia! now gracing the in-the-round stage at Toby’s, the Dinner Theatre of Columbia. #hocoarts

Mamma Mia! is a jukebox musical based on the songs from the seventies pop rock group ABBA that were composed by former band members Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus. British playwright Catherine Johnson managed to craft a sweet story line around rather disparate songs, and it works. The plot features strong women protagonists and a high dose of feminism throughout.

Directed and choreographed by Helen Hayes Award winner Mark Minnick, the polished, colorfully costumed, well-staged production at Toby’s is flawless with a high-spirited, talented cast performing their hearts out. Top-notch vocal performances, solid acting and energetic dancing with the able support of Conductor Ross Scott Rawlings and his six-piece orchestra bring to life the nostalgia of ABBA’s popular catalog of hits while Johnson’s story brings smiles and a tear or two as the show progresses.

Sophie Sheridan, played brilliantly by Toby’s newcomer Maggie Dransfield, never knew who her father was as she was raised only by her single mother and owner of the taverna, Donna Sheridan, played by Heather Marie Beck, also magnificent in her role.  

Donna, back in the day, was the lead singer of a pop trio Donna and the Dynamos along with Tanya (Coby Kay Callahan) and Rosie (Tess Rohan).  And now she toils tirelessly in running the taverna and raising Sophie by herself having gotten used to the fact there is no longer a man in her life.

Coby Kay Callahan, Heather Marie Beck and Tess Rohan
singing "Super Trouper' Photo: Jeri Tidwell Photography
Sophie sneakily inspects her mother’s diary entries and determines the possibilities based on steamy episodes that took place just prior to her birth: Sam Carmichael (Jeffrey Shankle), an architect; Bill Austen (Russell Sunday), a travel writer; and Harry Bright, a British banker (Darren McDonnell). 
Unbeknownst to her mother, she secretly invites all to her wedding feeling she will know who that man is.

Much of the story revolves around how the three men interact with Sophie and how they explain their presence to Donna as well as the touching but sometimes tense 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 prodded along by the music.

And oh that music! While not all of ABBA’s songs are performed, most of the toe-tapping, hummable ones are. “Dancing Queen,” “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” “Lay All Your Love On Me,” “The Winner Takes It All” and “Take a Chance On Me” (my personal favorite) help make the production soar.

Mr. Minnick’s choreography, so ably suited for the unique contours of Toby’s stage, is meticulous and energetic. The athletic dancers execute their moves with precision and enthusiasm. “Money, Money, Money,” “Lay All Your Love On Me,” and “Voulez-Vous” are good examples of that.  Then there is “Dancing Queen,” a show-stopper for sure.

In a spectacular production number, “Lay All Your Love On Me” the stellar choreography is evident. It starts off with Sophie and Sky singing the emotional and up-tempo song and is joined by the male ensemble donning blue tight wetsuits and flippers. Special shout-outs go to Andrew Prowant for his acrobatic flips and Shiloh Orr for his amazing hand walk across the width of the stage.

Another highlight is the hilarious duet with Tess Rohan as Rosie, an unmarried free-wheeling soul and a member of the one-time Donna and the Dynamos, and Russell Sunday as Bill in “Take A Chance On Me.”  Ms. Rohan’s antics during the number elicit much laughter.

Coby Kay Callahan, also a member of the Donna and the Dynamos trio, plays the thrice-married Tanya. She also demonstrates her comedic skills and lovely singing voice and is on full display in “Money, Money, Money,” “Chiquitta,” “Super Trouper” as well as “Dancing Queen.”

Darren McDonnell & cast in 'Waterloo' Photo:Jeri Tidwell Photography
As Sophie, Maggie Dransfield turns in a marvelous performance in demonstrating 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. Beck as her mother Donna and Paul Roeckell, making his Toby’s debut as the fiancée Sky, are superbly played by all the actors, especially in scenes where there are tense confrontations.

Heather Marie Beck is first-rate as Donna.  She is a commanding force onstage with her acting skills and gorgeous soprano voice.  The range of emotions she exhibits with Ms. Dransfield’s Sophie are competently executed providing many of the dramatic sequences.

As part of the trio in “Dancing Queen” Ms. Beck excels.  She also delivers exceptional solo performances in “One Of Us” and “The Winner Takes It All” and performs well in “SOS,” a duet with Mr. Shankle and “Our Last Summer,” a duet with Mr. McDonnell.

Mr. McDonell as Harry, Mr. Shankle as Sam and Mr. Sunday 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. 

I am so happy that Jeffrey Shankle has the opportunity to demonstrate his outstanding tenor voice.  He kills it in “Knowing Me, Knowing You”—another highlight.

Rounding out the talented cast are Jamie Pasquinelli as Ali, Cassie Saunders as Lisa, Joey Ellinghaus as Pepper, Shiloh Orr as Eddie, and David James as Father Alexandrios.

Other members of the energetic ensemble are Brandon Bedore, Justin Calhoun, Rachel Kemp, Ariel Messeca, Andrew Prowant, Nina Savoy, Louisa Tringali and Brigid Wallace.

David A. Hopkins set design is spot-on with wooden aqua and cream-colored doors on the walls above and around the stage depicting the entrances to hotel-like rooms above the Greek island taverna, which is the scene for much of the action.  Mr. Minnick effectively utilizes all the available levels and corners of the theater rendering the production to play big in the in-the-round space.

Cast singing 'Waterloo' at show's end
Photo: Jeri Tidwell Photgraphy
The wide variety of spectacular pastel costumes are provided by AT Jones & Sons INC.  Mark Smedley’s sound design is on the money as the performers are well mic’d and able to soar above the orchestration. And David A. Hopkins lighting design nimbly suits the myriad changes in mood in dialogue and song.

The ninth longest running show on Broadway and the eighth longest in London’s West End, Mamma Mia! has been played virtually everywhere.  If that weren’t enough, there is the popular film version with the same name. And just in time for this run, the sequel to the movie, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, is set to open on July 20.  

Oddly, the musical never captured a Tony Award though it received five nominations in 2002.   That tidbit is shrugged off by the tens of millions who have enjoyed the show worldwide.

You should definitely take a chance and see this well directed, expertly performed Mamma Mia! at Toby’s Dinner Theatre.  The famous buffet is as good as ever adding to a wonderful evening of joy and a well-earned few hours of escaping the tumult in the world.

Running time. Two hours and 35 minutes with an intermission.

Mamma Mia! runs through September 9, 2018 at Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia, 4900 Symphony Woods Rd., Columbia, MD 21044.  Tickets may be purchased by calling the box office at 410-730-8311or visiting online.

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