Bedazzled bellbottoms, fluffed-up feather boas and plenty of frothy pop usher in Charleston Stage’s 2018-19 season, loading up the Dock Street Theatre stage with pure, unapologetic fun. The company is getting their seventies on by way of Mamma Mia!, a new production of playwright Catherine Johnson’s ABBA-happy show that, since its 1999 West End debut, has enjoyed hearty runs on Broadway and beyond — plus a 2008 film rendition starring A-listers like Meryl Streep and Colin Firth.
If you’re looking to plumb the depths of the human experience, this gleeful, glitzy jukebox musical admittedly doesn’t go too terribly deep, opting instead to pleasantly loll near life’s shimmery surface, submerging only momentarily with SCUBA fins and Speedos for comic effect. However, if you’re up for an altogether carefree and hum-along-able confection — by way of disco-dipped wedding idyll on a Greek island — I encourage you to dive right in, the water’s fine.
The clue is in the name, after all. The 1970s Swedish band ABBA became an international hit machine with tunes like the titular “Mamma Mia!” And those prettified pop songs composed by ABBA’s Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus during this kinder, if fashion-awkward, time have legs that have long outlasted the platform shoes. Decades later they can unleash sufficient nostalgia to power a full-scale musical.
True, few among us would search our playlists for “Super Trouper” during a dark night of the soul. While Mamma Mia! splashes about in the stuff of marriage and family, it does so with a decidedly light touch.The playwright provides the top notes of character and plot mainly to weave a feel-good, humor-fueled narrative from the likes of “The Winner Takes It All” and “Dancing Queen.”
During the performance, the writer in me indulged in a little good-natured guessing game, attempting to name the celebrated ABBA number the stage action was teeing up. For instance, when ingenue Sophie (Sara Sanderson) decides to marry Sky (Sergio de la Espriella) at the Greek island taverna owned by her mother Donna (Rylee Coppel), the young bride invites three men, one of whom could be the father she has never known. Make way for the ABBA chart-burner “Mamma Mia!” Similarly, when Donna’s friend Rosie becomes laser-focused on a love interest, there’s a good chance “Take a Chance on Me” this way comes.
Mind you now, manufacturing nostalgia can be tricky show business. Expectations must be met, and takes on tunes hardwired in an audience member’s brain cannot miss a beat unnoticed. While jukebox musicals gain some upper hand by performing familiar, and thereby well-received, songs, a missed step down memory can mean trouble. The Charleston Stage production largely succeeds in giving the people what they want, barring a few moments when one or two of the performers were pushed to the limits of their ranges.
All in all, the energetic, committed cast brought both sport and esprit to the show. The full company goes for the gusto with big, exuberant numbers, which at times call for gamely maneuvering the stage’s space constraints. In the lead roles, Sanderson gives us a charming, appealing Sophie, a perfect complement to the keeping-it-real relatability of Coppel’s Donna.
Similarly, Mom’s three once-and-maybe-future suitors — Ryan Pixler as Harry Bright; Derek T. Pickens as Bill Austin; and Lee Lewis as Sam Carmichael — all offer amiable comedy-laced characterizations. As Donna’s sidekicks-since-the-seventies, Lara Allred Swallen is a chuckle-worthy picture of privilege in her portrayal of Tanya, and Crystin Gilmore takes the wedding cake as Rosie, putting forth such an impressive, magnificently silly show of physical humor that she elevated her every scene.
All this merrily unfolds on a striking blue-and-white, Mediterranean set created by Kimberly Powers, which is emblematic of Charleston Stage’s ever-polished and ambitious production values that render the on-stage vista a bit of a vacation in and of itself. Through sliding segments, the taverna shifts seamlessly from bedroom to beach to bar. Vibrant costumes created by Rafael Colon Castanera complement this, with sheer eye candy that shifts from silvery sparkle to wedding blush.
On a personal note, the production brings me back to my first experience with Mamma Mia! That was in October of 2001, when I lived in New York City and was offered a last-minute ticket to one of the first performances of its Broadway run. This was just on the heels of the events of September 11, when the entire city was in a haze of hurt and disorientation. I recall arriving there that evening thinking the premise would be a disconcerting disconnect.
Instead, something altogether unexpected happened on that evening 17 years ago. The innocent joy of the soundtrack and story coaxed the entire audience into a different state of mind, and by the end we were all on our feet belting out “Waterloo.” And so the seemingly slight, super-spangled show became one of the most moving theatrical experiences I’ve ever had. We all so craved lightness, and Mamma Mia! allowed us to receive it that night.
Now, facing down the grim, whipping winds of Hurricane Florence, the carefree breezes blowing on the Dock Street stages of this past weekend may seem similarly disjointed. However, I learned long ago from this very show that there is always a place for well-intentioned frivolity, come hell or high water. Cheers to Mamma Mia! for bringing that seriously fun notion home to Charleston, and here’s hoping the show continues its run on the other side of the storm.