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REVIEW: "Mamma Mia!" — Laguna Playhouse, Laguna Beach

"Come Take a Trip Down the Aisle This Month You'll Not Soon Forget!"

Now extended through August 4th, Laguna Playhouse proudly presents the phenomenal hit musical, Mamma Mia! featuring the songs that defined an era – the legendary music of the Swedish pop group, ABBA.

You know the story already, so no spoilers here - On the remote Greek island of Kalokairi, 20-year-old bride-to-be Sophie Sheridan (McKenna Wells) runs a shabby B & B with her free-spirited single mother, Donna (MaryAnn Carlisle). Sophie dreams of a perfect wedding — one which includes her father giving her away. The problem? Sophie doesn’t know who he is! Her mother even refuses to talk about the past, so Sophie decides to take matters into her own hands.

Sneaking a peek in Donna’s old diaries, she discovers three possible fathers: Sam, Bill, and Harry (20 years ago, Donna seems to have had quite a summer!). On the eve of Sophie’s wedding to Sky (David Šášik), she reveals to her bridesmaids, Ali (Kristen Daniels) and Lisa (Aubrey Knapp), that she’s secretly invited all three men to the wedding, convinced one of them has to be her father. But when all three turn up in tandem, each believing he’s been invited by his old flame, it may not be as clear as she thought!

Picture Donna, in work clothes with a drill in her hand, striking a pose of shock in seeing her three main squeezes all together, and suddenly she's singing, with full-throated alarm, the title number, ''Mamma Mia, here I go again/ My My, how can I resist you?'' Every now and then, the members of a friendly chorus of ensemble Greek peasants are heard echoing her sentiments backstage.

The effect conjures up the way old Top 40 hits will insinuate themselves into your mind at critical emotional moments, providing unsolicited soundtracks. Crucial to the emotional punch and appeal of these moments is that the singers are not hothouse exotics. Every character in the show could pass for normal at a suburban cookout. Which makes the return of “Donna and the Dynamos,” in finned and ruffled disco drag for Sophie's pre-wedding party, a rousing apotheosis.

Their joints now creak and their backs catch in pain. But the hedonistic spirit is still defiantly present in their voices. Regardless of the considerable power of those voices, however, the show still creates the beguiling illusion that you could jump onstage at any moment and start singing with them. Donna, with wispy, windblown strands one moment and perfectly coiffed the next is a perfect metaphor for her electric performance. She takes us on a rollercoaster ride of emotions, equally interesting when enraged, letting her hair down, or being a solid mom. Best of all, you can easily see why Sophie turned out so well, and yet totally believe Donna’s decidedly more wild youth.

Meanwhile, Donna welcomes her two best friends and backup singers, the hilarious, no-nonsense Rosie (Dwan Hayes) and chic, lean and thrice-married Tanya (Sophia Swannell), who provide much comedy relief in the show. But when Donna finally learns her baby-daddy et al. has checked in, she goes into a funk and finds solace with her pals (“Chiquitita”).

Realizing that “the wedding is tomorrow,” they immediately follow that up with the more upbeat “Dancing Queen,” considered by some as the greatest disco record ever made. Perhaps that’s true — it's a song of such high-quality, a song so beloved, the weight of its own legacy keeps it in check. But even then it triumphs. That initial glissando, the endless, breathless, pirouettes in your ears. The tepid beat — barely faster than your heartbeat — the choral whirls and clambering strings. It's perfect. But you already knew that.

Told through the legendary music of ABBA, the wedding party converges on the island for 24 hours of low-stakes, mix-and-match romantic pairings, and plenty of high energy belting and hoofing that will have audiences dancing in the aisles by the end. Yes, the show’s plot may be a little light, the songs may have the thinnest possible connection to the narrative, and a good therapist could probably clean up the characters’ problems in a single session. But then, in this musical, realism is not an option. This is meant to be pure entertainment, not serious drama.

The idea for the play stems as far back as 1982 when British playwright Judy Craymer approached Benny and Björn about a story employing several songs by ABBA. It was the song "The Winner Takes It All" that convinced her that the songs could be used theatrically. In 1997 Craymer began work on the upcoming musical, commissioning British playwright Catherine Johnson and Director Phyllida Lloyd. The musical then opened in 1999 in the West End to great success, prompting Craymer to bring it to the United States, eventually becoming one of the highest grossing shows to play on Broadway.

In 2008, Mamma Mia! The Movie, a jukebox musical comedy adapted by Universal Pictures, opened on the big screen starring Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Amanda Seyfried, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgård, Dominic Cooper, Christine Baranski and Julie Walters. The on-going success of that film inspired a sequel that opened last year, ten years after the original's premiere date.

As golden-haired Sophie, Ms. Wells (“Guys and Dolls,” “Peter Pan”) firmly steps out of the supporting limelight at Elon University and into the star spotlight of regional theatre with her pure, trilling ingénue voice. Her performance captures a key mixture of youthful energy, naïvete, and pathos as she lets her gorgeous vocals sell the narrative bridges in the plot. Ms. Wells is paired onstage with handsome, returning artist Mr. Šášik (“Bonnie & Clyde,” “Hairspray,” “All Shook Up”) as Sky, but the two spend less time singing together than you might think. When they do, however, it’s empyreal – in fact, they are both luminous in the electro-dance tune, “Lay All Your Love on Me,” one of Director/Choreographer Karen Babcock Brassea’s best designs.

Nearly every ABBA Top 20 hit is woven somewhere into the fabric of the script. One particularly memorable number features a line of men clad only in wetsuits and flippers high-stomping in beat as they kidnap the unaware Mr. Šášik for a bachelor’s outing. Showing their gymnastic adroitness, several perform backflips, one-handed cartwheels, and ballet whirligigs, all while eloquently spinning in flippers and snorkels. Two young, acrobatic, ensemble dancers are clear standouts: Sam Buchanan (the 2018 Mr. Dance of America) and Tanner Frisbey (a Commercial Dance Major at Pace University). Both dazzle the crowd with their light-as-air moves.

At the end of the day, however, Mamma Mia! is definitely keeping the lights on the ladies. Whether it’s the infectious female ensemble performance of “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight),” or Sophia Swannell as Tanya nailing the smoky pseudo-cougar song “Does Your Mother Know?,” or the spandex-jumpsuited trio performing one that’s actually named for the stage lights, “Super Trouper,” this show is high entertainment and virtually relatable to any age.

What’s really great about Mamma Mia! is its complete disconnect from cool, its conviction that middle-aged women in overalls are the hottest thing going. The spirit of the show seems somewhere between High School Musical and Hedwig and the Angry Inch — at once enthusiastically wholesome but also proudly jaded. It posits a transgenerational, pansexual, Xanadu paradise that’s deeply quixotic, and still manages to have its way with everyone in the audience, thanks to the company’s barnstorming performance and the music of Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, the Swedish duo who wrote several dozen of the catchiest pop songs in history. For all their melodic hooks and candy-fluff lyrics, their songs have a brutal, emotional directness.

The show has now become a global entertainment phenomenon, which has been seen by over 60 million people worldwide, in over 440 major cities. And every night since, the audience goes wild, literally out of their seats, unconstrained. The numbers speak for themselves, but admittedly, it is those glorious, instantly memorable ABBA songs that are fused so effortlessly into the story that make it work. Supplement that with an exotic setting, a supremely peerless cast and crew like the one at Laguna Playhouse, and the musical pulses with new life.

Ms. Hayes as Rosie comes close to creating a fully shaped character out of air. Her courtship bid to the adamantly single Bill (Daryl J. Roth) in the church number, ''Take a Chance on Me,'' is the most charming number in the show, and her first line was enough to send the entire house into a cheering frenzy.

Sophie's fiancé, Sky (the perfectly chiseled Mr. Šášik), exhibits charm and charisma that jump off the stage, and you find yourself following him in the large group scenes, showing off his exquisite dance prowess and vocals in ”Lay All Your Love on Me” and “Voulez Vous.”

Sophie’s best friends, Ms. Daniels and Ms. Knapp, provide a real shot of youthful adrenaline and sell their scenes well, particularly as the glue that holds together the whole bachelorette party sequence. Both are instrumental backstage in vocal enhancement backup.

Their guy counterparts, Pepper and Eddie, are also terrific, nailing their jokes and dancing their feet off in both “Does Your Mother Know” and “Lay All Your Love on Me.” Nick Nazarro, as Eddie, does a wonderful job in conveying a great friendship with Sky and employee for Donna’s taverna. Zain Patel, as Pepper, is the perfect combination of the libido-charged, impish trouble maker, and lusty pursuer of cougar supreme-o, Tanya.

As the three dads, Daniel Berlin as Harry is quite funny and charming. It is fun to watch him light up as he recalls his summer of youthful abandon, and his sincerity in trying to do right by Sophie. Mr. Roth as Bill (in “Indiana Jones” fashion), is all macho bravado with a heart of gold and a surprising, humorous take on some unmanly insecurity. You can’t help but like and root for the guy from the minute his lanky frame lopes into view. Jonathan Van Dyke plays the prominent dad figure, Sam Carmichael. It is he who Donna believes is the real father to her Sophie. Sam’s voice shines in at least six of the musical numbers, but a clear favorite is his solo, “Knowing Me, Knowing You.”

Father Alexandrios is played by Jared Ryan Kaitz. The Ensemble features Sam Buchanan, Tanner Frisbey, Jayden Goodman, Jared Ryan Kaitz, Eleni Kutay, Lizzie Menzies, Johann Santiago Santos and Katherine Westrum.

Costume Designs are by P&G Designs, Keith Lambert is Wardrobe Coordinator, Lighting Design is by Alex Crocker-Lakness and Production Stage Manager is Hannah Alikhani. The show is Musically Directed by Ricky Pope and Produced by Boebe Productions. Ann E. Wareham is Artistic Director and Ellen Richard is Executive Director.

Kicking off their 99th season, Laguna Playhouse delivers a show filled with giddy conviction, suggestive humor and nostalgic fun with theatergoers dancing in the aisles. Even before the curtain lifted, the audience cheered. Twice. For those of us who lived that era of the 70’s, this was like a welcomed reunion with an old friend, one in which we’ve had a longtime crush.

Mamma Mia! began previews on July 5th and officially opened on July 7th. Performances are Wednesdays through Fridays at 7:30pm, Saturdays at 2pm and 7:30pm, and Sundays at 1pm and 5:30pm. Added performanes are on Tuesday, July 9th at 7:30pm, Thursday, July 18th and Thursday, July 25th at 2pm, Tuesday, July 30th at 7:30pm and Thursday August 1st at 2pm. There is no performance on Sunday, August 4th at 5:30pm. Talk-Backs are scheduled for Saturday, July 13th at 2pm and Thursday, July 18th at 7:30pm.

Laguna Playhouse is located at 606 Laguna Canyon Drive in Laguna Beach. Tickets may be purchased online at or by calling 949-497-ARTS. Prices are subject to change. Come take a chance on “Mamma Mia! before it’s gone August 4th!

Chris Daniels

Arts Reviewer

The Show Report


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