Ivoryton Playhouse Does ABBA Proud With A Buoyant "Mamma Mia!"

Carly Callahan, Laiona Michelle and Jessie Alagna as Tanya, Donna and Rosie in Ivoryton Playhouse's MAMMA MIA!
(Photo by Jonathan Steele)

Ivoryton Playhouse Does ABBA Proud With A Buoyant “Mamma Mia!”

By Don Church and Tony Schillaci, Critics On The Aisle

The Ivoryton Playhouse celebrates summer with the bouncy, feel-good musical Mamma Mia! – chock full of twenty-three ABBA songs which are woven throughout the thin but lighthearted story.

Set on an island in Mediterranean Greece, a young bride-to-be sends wedding invitations, without her mother’s knowledge, to three of her exuberant mamma’s long-ago suitors, hoping to find out which one of them might be the father she’s never known.  As directed and choreographed by J.R. Bruno, (assisted by Nigel Hall*) we found his interpretation to be superior to both the movie and the West End production, both of which depended upon some scenes of  sickly sentimentality. Bruno has reduced those “ick” moments, replacing them with lots of fun and boundless humor to brighten the mood.

Setting the stage for the musical excellence of the show is silver-voiced Stephanie Gomérez as daughter Sophie, offering us her gorgeous rendition of the opening number “I Have A Dream.” As Sophie’s friends arrive on the island, the bouncy music of  “Honey, Honey” underscores their friendship. Cameron Khalil Stokes plays outrageously jolly Ali with snap and sass. Ali is accompanied by tiny sidekick Lisa (Ana Yi Puig). This duo couldn’t create more of an outstanding comic and visual contrast.

Donna, who owns a bar-restaurant-hotel on the island and is the title character, is portrayed as a strong mom, an affectionate friend and an energetic survivor by Laiona Michelle*. The former lead singer of ‘Donna’s Dynamos’, she has invited her backup singers to the island to enjoy the festivities. With a big Broadway voice and commanding presence throughout, Ms. Michelle is at her best in a poignant interpretation in the second act. of “The Winner Takes It All.” It’s a genuine heartbreaker and brings down the house. 

As for Donna’s buddies, Rosie and Tanya, these women brighten up every scene in which they appear. From their first “Chiquitita” trio to the finale, these delicious vocalists embody the spirit of ABBA. Carly Callahan’s character Tanya is perfection as a thrice-wed sexy blonde gold digger who’s as loveable as she is delightully over-the-top. With her stunning voice, she shines in every Dynamo trio, and is especially outstanding in “Does Your Mother Know?…in which she seduces the sensual dancer Nicholas Gonzales as Pepper.

Third ‘Dynamo’ member Rosie (Jessie Alagna*) gets her big moment when she begs one of the possible dads to give her a tumble in “Take A Chance On Me.” Ms. Alagna pulls out all the stops in this hilariously choreographed and directed number, rewarded by peals of laughter from a delighted audience.

The three dads, Sam-Bill-and Harry, are Cooper Grodin*, Dane Agostinis* and Billy Clark Taylor.* They’re introduced via one of Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvæus’ most beautiful songs “Thank You For The Music.” Any one of them could believably be Sophie’s dad, and they’ll keep you guessing throughout the performance.

Sophie’s handsome fiancé, Sky, is played by recent Julliard graduate Jack Kay. He’s at his musical best in “Lay All Your Love On Me” and makes a realistic pairing with Ms. Gomérez as the young lovers.

The sensational cast of singer/dancer/actors (some in multiple roles) is as exciting and rousing as the ABBA music itself. Cheers and applause to Evan Benjamin, Kelley Davies, Nico DiPrimio, Mark Gilchrist, Nicholas Gonzalez, Nigel Hall, Aliah James, Amanda Lupacchino, Melissa McLean, Ana Yi Puig, Carolina Santos Read*, Nathan Russo, Cameron Khalil Stokes, and Audrey Wilson. This multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-generational company represents the best of the future of Broadway and musical theater.

As for that unforgettable “schlager” style ABBA music, the Ivoryton Playhouse’s music makers : Conductor/keyboardist David John Madore, Guitarist Dan Hartington, Keyboardist Paul Feyer, Percussionist/Drummer Marty Wirt and Bassist David Uhl are all to be congratulated keeping the outstanding sweet sounds and melodic harmonies of ABBA hits for yet another generation. Tate R. Burmeister’s sound, Ray Smith’s audio engineering and John Eldridge’s electronic music design were, in a very few moments, plagued with instances of Ms. Michelle’s mic not working properly, and orchestrations coming across too loudly over the soloists. Not to worry, these tiny technical glitches happen in the best of shows, including this uplifting ABBA musical.

Scenic designer Glenn Bassett and Lighting Designer Marcus Abbot have collaborated on creating a super set with stunning lighting. Yes, the island is a fantasy, and that fantasy is what this theater piece is all about. Stage Manager Theresa Stark* and Assistant Stage Manager Kayla Gardner* combine their talents in this mightily complex and rapid-fire show to keep everything running smoothly and seemingly without effort. Elizabeth A. Saylor’s costumes contribute to the personality of each character, and her finale outfits are as outlandish as ABBA’s originals.

Just as Agnetha and Frida were the face and voice of ABBA, so too are the women in Ivoryton Playhouse’s Mamma Mia! the heart and soul of this musical. Donna, Sophia, Tanya and Rosie are strong, talented and bursting with heart and laughter.  Incorporated throughout the show are the hits “Super Trouper”, “Dancing Queen”, “Knowing Me, Knowing You”, “Money, Money, Money”, “Voulez-Vous”, “SOS”, “Mamma Mia” and “Waterloo.”

The exciting finale had us up on our feet, and some younger audience members were dancing in the aisle. No matter how you identify gender-wise, at the end of this show you’ll likely be a very happy “Dancing Queen.”

MAMMA MIA! runs through July 28, 2019. Performance times are Wednesday and Sunday matinees at 2pm. Evening performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30pm, Friday and Saturday at 8pm. Additional matinee performance Saturday, July 20th at 2pm.

As for “Money, Money, Money” - tickets are $55 for adults; $50 for seniors; $25 for students and $20 for children and are available by calling the Playhouse box office at 860-767-7318 or by visiting the website at www.ivorytonplayhouse.org  . The Playhouse is at 103 Main Street in Ivoryton, CT.

(*) indicates member of Actors Equity Association.