REVIEW: "Mamma Mia!" — La Mirada Theatre & McCoy Rigby Entertainment

Updated: Nov 16

"...Mamma Mia! is an effervescent, hook-driven, irresistible delight"


Mamma Mia! – How can I resist you? It’s a love story set to ABBA songs in the islands of Greece, and although it doesn't rival Oedipus Rex, Prometheus Bound, or Antigone, it still remains as stonkingly, wonderfully, unbelievably good as the first time I saw it.


But what is it that makes the show so appealing? Well, quite apart from having some of the finest pop songs ever written — hits like "Lay All Your Love on Me," Knowing Me, Knowing You," "Take a Chance on Me," "Thank You for the Music," "Money, Money, Money," The Winner Takes It All" and "Voulez-Vous" — "Mamma Mia! is the ultimate feel-good tale of conquering all.


It is completely uncynical and consistently compelling, the perfect show for someone who says they don't like theatre, or who "doesn't do musicals." These elements have been combined with alchemical magic, transforming the show into the theatrical equivalent of comfort food – sweet, slightly synthetic tasting, transporting the eater to a safer, happier yesterday.


Eric Kunze, Gabriela Carrillo, Michael Cavinder and Danny Bernardo

Over 65 million people have seen the show, which has grossed $4 billion worldwide since its 1999 debut. A film adaptation starring Meryl Streep, Colin Firth, Pierce Brosnan, Amanda Seyfried, Christine Baranski, Stellan Skarsgård and Julie Walters was released in July 2008 and was followed by a sequel film in July 2018.


And now, it's time once again to break out the platform shoes and feather boas as La Mirada Theatre and Director T.J. Dawson brings “Mamma Mia!” back home in an all-out party extravaganza run through November 21st, allowing members of a graying disco generation to shake their booties in the aisles all over again.


It’s a rather playful plot. Concisely, “Mamma Mia!” centers on 20-year-old Sophie (Gabriela Carrillo) and her feisty, independent mom, Donna (Marie-France Arcilla). This inseparable duo has lived on a small Greek island in the Aegean Sea for most of Sophie’s life, operating a small taverna that welcomes travelers. With Sophie about to marry, she needs her dad to give her away, and so, invites the three men who might be her dad to the nuptials (finding their names in her mom’s diary).


In the opening scene, Sophie draws the audience into the story with “Honey, Honey,” reimagined as her reading her mother’s diary aloud to her two best friends, Ali and Lisa (performed by the amazingly talented team of Joi D. McCoy and Momoko Sugai) who have just arrived for the wedding.


Eric Kunze and Gabriela Carrillo

But the full charms of the story don't become evident until about 20 minutes into the show, when Donna accidentally encounters the three potential fathers, who have shown up and are just checking in.


Donna, in work clothes with a drill in her hand, strikes a pose of shock, everyone else onstage freezes, and suddenly she's singing, with full-throated alarm (between flashes of temper), the jaw-dropping number “Mamma Mia!” a spirited song of regretful attraction. Every now and then (somewhere back stage), the members of a friendly chorus of Greek peasants can be heard echoing her.


Speaking of the dads, each serve as an indispensable member of the supporting cast. Harry Bright (Danny Bernardo), a proper English businessman finally taking an adventure and getting out of the city, vocalizes the audience’s desire to escape into the music of ABBA when he recalls his old nickname: Head-Banger.


As the man Donna loved most, Sam Carmichael (Eric Kunze) represents Donna’s biggest regrets and also her greatest achievements, since she alone made his plans for the taverna into a reality and raised her daughter there. Swedish travel writer Bill Austin (Michael Cavinder) acts as the most approachable and also the silliest potential dad. Watch for his on-point dad-dance-moves during Sophie’s bachelorette party.


Marie-France Arcilla (center) with the company of Mamma Mia!

And, in an interesting mirrored plot twist, Donna’s equally devoted sidekicks from her pre-Sophie days surprised her by coming for the wedding as well. Back in her youth, Donna had headed an all-girls pop group called Donna and the Dynamos. And the other two members of that group were the chic, sophisticated and thrice-married Tanya (Emily King Brown) and the high-spirited but practical Rosie (Candi Milo), a cookbook writer. Now, how can they resist putting on their old costumes and singing their old songs? This dynamic duo has chemistry galore and delivers some of the show’s funniest lines. Later, Ms. Brown, with her pop belter’s voice, steals the show with “Does Your Mother Know?” as Sky’s young friend, Pepper (Rodrigo Varandas) comes onto her. Then Ms. Milo has perhaps the most charming number of all with her courtship bid to the adamantly single Bill (Mr. Cavinder), in which she sings ''Take a Chance on Me.''


Emily King Brown, Marie-France Arcilla and Candi Milo

Meanwhile, Sophie has a steamy scene with fiancé, Sky (Taubert Nadalini), as they discuss their whirlwind romance in “Lay All Your Love on Me” before he heads off to his bachelor party. Soon after, she meets and confesses her suspicions to her potential dads in “Thank You for the Music,” “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!” and “The Name of the Game.” Ms. Carrillo’s presence onstage feels like an innocent Disney princess. You know she’s young, naïve, and learning her place in life, but you root for her because of her brave attitude, her clear voice, and her effortless beauty.


This is not, for the record, your basic organic musical. Songs spring directly from the plot, but with a jolting, self-aware literal-mindedness. Don't even ask how ''Chiquitita,'' a Spanish-flavored ballad, turns directly into a vehicle for Tanya and Rosie to cheer up the distraught Donna. Or how Donna lets a bitter confrontation segue straight into ''The Winner Takes It All.'' To author Catherine Johnson's credit, though, the plot points fit the songs quite well in most instances, and it is an interesting discovery as each seemingly independent song reveals lyrics that are appropriate to the story.


Candi Milo, Marie-France Arcilla and Emily King Brown

Originally conceived by Judy Cramer, “Mamma Mia!” is truly the mother of the jukebox musical and comes at you big and loud, building on that "wall of sound" style for which the music of ABBA is known. Although many of the performers have voices of considerable power, the show creates the beguiling illusion that you could jump onstage and start singing and fit right in. Which makes the knock-out return of Donna and the Dynamos in "Super Trouper"/ “Voulez-Vous” at act one’s end, all decked out in finned and ruffled disco drag for Sophie's pre-wedding party, a rousing apotheosis, and some of the best ensemble dancing you’ll see anywhere.


Candi Milo, Marie-France Arcilla and Emily King Brown

Very much like the sparkling pop songs of Swedish super-group ABBA, "Mamma Mia!” is an effervescent, hook-driven, irresistible delight. By the time we reach the grand finale, the musical had transformed into a concert! Nearly everyone was on their feet. Few musicals demand an encore, but this one always does, and it delivers it at the curtain call. Actually, the post-show performance is almost like a show within itself. Even the costumes take a bow during this multi-sing-along in full ‘70s disco wardrobes, platform shoes, and bell-bottoms.


Marie-France Arcilla and Gabriela Carrillo

Music and Lyrics by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus; some songs with Stig Anderson. Based on the songs of Abba. Book by Catherine Johnson; Directed by T.J. Dawson; Choreography by Dana Solimando; Production Stage Manager is Jill Gold; Lighting by Jean-Yves Tessier; Sound by Cricket S. Myers; Scenic Design by Stephen Gifford; Costume Design by Winfield Murdock; Hair/MakeUp by Kaitlyn McCoy; Musical Director is Keith Thompson; Additional Arrangements by Martin Koch.


WITH: Gabriela Carrillo (Sophie Sheridan), Joi D. McCoy (Ali), Momoko Sugai (Lisa), Emily King Brown (Tanya), Candi Milo (Rosie), Marie-France Arcilla (Donna Sheridan), Taubert Nadalini (Sky), Rodrigo Varandas (Pepper), Dillon Klena (Eddie), Danny Bernardo (Harry Bright), Michael Cavinder (Bill Austin), Erik Kunze (Sam Carmichael) and Dylan Pass (Father Alexandrios).


(Top Center) Taubert Nadalini and Gabriela Carrillo star with the company

ENSEMBLE: Chris Bona, Gillian Bozajian, Markesha Chatfield, Juan Guillen, Brandon Halvorsen, Michael James, Dillon Klena, Ashley En-Fu Matthews, Joi D. McCoy, Jonathan McGill, Isabella Olivas, Christina Papandrea, Dylan Pass, Kelly Powers-Figueroa, Momoko Sugai, Fana Tesfagiorgis, Adam Turney, Rodrigo Varandas.


Michael Cavinder, Candi Milo, Eric Kunze, Marie-France Arcilla, Danny Bernardo and Emily King Brown

UNDERSTUDIES: Markesha Chatfield for Donna/Tanya; Gillian Bozajian for Sophia; Dillon Klena for Sky; Michael Cavinder for Sam; Rodrigo Varandas for Bill; Juan Guillen for Harry; Momoko Sugai for Rosie; Michael James for Pepper; Isabella Olivas for Ali/Lisa; Adam Turney for Eddie. Swings are Hannah Jean Simmons (Dance Captain) and Scott Spraags. The Band includes Keith Thompson, Brent Crayon, Andrew Lederman, Ron Colvard, Jack Majdecki, Will Yanez, Jonathan Richards, Chris Thigpen, Nick Stone and Eric Heinly.


“Mamma Mia!” presented by La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts and McCoy Rigby Entertainment, running from October 29th through November 21st. For Tickets and further information on special requirements for upcoming performances, please visit: www.lamiradatheatre.com


Chris Daniels

Arts & Entertainment Reviewer

The Show Report


PHOTO CREDIT: JASON NIEDLE