Harry Bright, Sam Carmichael and Bill Austin are invited to the wedding of the daughter of their former paramour, Donna. The trouble is that the invitations came from Donna’s daughter, Sophie, who is bound and determined to find out which of these men is her father. This is Mamma Mia! and it is currently playing at the Performing Artists Repertory Theatre.
This is my third go-around reviewing this show and this, hands down, was the best version I’ve seen. I’ve always considered this show to be kitschy fun due to its near lack of a story which is solely meant to serve as a backdrop to ABBA songs. But, this time, I had an absolute blast due to the complete commitment of the cast, precision direction and a band that nailed the music to the floor.
Gordon Cantiello’s direction couldn’t be any more on target. The staging is right on the mark with the little seaside hotel/tavern and makes use of the entire theatre. His pacing is precisely on point. Not only has he guided his actors to pitch perfect performances, but he also found beats which I didn’t think existed in this show and were believably played by a stellar cast.
The ensemble was one of the best I’ve seen. Each was thoroughly committed to the show and it added such a wonderful, vital dimension to it. And many added little bits of business that made the show just that much more realistic. Strong supporting performances were supplied by Marcus Benzel and Analisa Peyton. Benzel shines as the uber macho travel writer, Bill Austin, and he plays him with maximum gusto. Peyton is equally mighty as the no-nonsense chef, Rosie Mulligan.
I admit I was blown away by Evelyn Hill’s performance as Sophie, even more so when I learned she was only a high school junior because she has a natural talent that can go toe to toe with actors who have many years of experience. Her Sophie is an energetic innocent. You completely buy into her joy of getting married, her love of her mother and her determination to discover the identity of her father. Hill has amazing facial expressions and I was utterly enthralled by her reactions to others and the events swirling about her.
Hill also has, as a Southern friend of mine would say, “a high roof to her mouth” (big vocal range). Her high alto powered through such numbers as “Honey, Honey”, “The Name of the Game”, and “Under Attack” where she shows that not only can she sing, but also knows how to emote through a song.
Chris Berger is right on the money with his take on Sam Carmichael. Berger strikes just the right balance of kindness, nervousness, sadness and courage. Indeed, this blend is crucial for dealing with the volatile Donna and showing the regret of not staying with her when he originally had the chance. Berger also is in fine fettle as a singer as he nails the show’s saddest number, “SOS” and is equally as good when he tries to advise Sophie on the bumps and trials of marriage in “Knowing Me, Knowing You”.
Mackenzie Dehmer is a pistol as Donna. She hooks in the audience from the beginning with her independent, blue collar nature and her initial animosity at Sam returning is so palpable it can be cut with a knife. And such lovely expressions of her own. She can shoot a glare or sneer that shouts volumes and sheds some real tears during the show’s more serious moments. Dehmer also has her own powerful alto which will thrill the audience with renditions of “One of Us”, “Slipping Through My Fingers”, “Mamma Mia” and “Our Last Summer”.
Jennifer Novak Haar and her band might as well be ABBA as they played the numbers so perfectly. Tom Bertino designed a simple set of boxes and turquoise shutters which make for a quite convincing hotel. Amber Wilson’s choreography is snappy and fun and immaculately executed by the cast. I truly loved each and every one of the group numbers. Ernie Gubbles’ lights add just the right bit of panache to the production.
The show well and truly got its hooks into me this time around and it gets my highest recommendation. It truly is one of the season’s best productions and is a treat for all who watch it.
Mamma Mia! runs at Performing Artists Repertory Theatre through Feb 16. Showtimes are 7pm Thurs-Sat and 2pm Sat-Sun. Tickets cost $35 ($30 for seniors and $25 for students). For ticket information, contact 402-706-0778. PART Theatre is located inside Crossroads Mall at 7400 Dodge St in Omaha, NE.