A Delightful and Intimate Mamma Mia! at Ivoryton

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mamma mia - ivoryton - 2 -by jonathan steele
Carly Callahan, Laiona Michelle and Jessie Alagna. Photo by Jonathan Steele

By Karen Isaacs

 Mamma Mia is getting its second production in one month; yet the two are totally different. The current production at Ivoryton Playhouse through Sunday, July 28 gives us an intimate production that creates a true emotional reaction to the story.

These two productions are very different. (The earlier production in June at the Connecticut Repertory Theater at UConn, was more a typical production with a larger cast and bigger stage).

I liked this production at Ivoryton more. I got more involved in the story and characters. Overall they were played more realistically and not as broadly.

So, in case you don’t remember the story, a young bride-to-be learns that her mother had brief encounters with three men the year before her birth. She sends each man an invitation to her wedding and amazingly they all arrive. They don’t know each other and the mother is not pleased to see them after 21 years. That’s the basic set up to the story which includes the bride’s desire for a “white wedding” while her mother eschews marriage the arrival of the three possible fathers and her mother’s two friends. The three were a musical group with the mother, Donna, as the lead singer.

It’s set on a Greek island; the music is drawn from the ABBA songbook. While it has been a huge hit – including two movies – let’s admit it is light entertainment. The plot is obvious – each man will decide he is the father, Donna will rekindle a romance with one of the men, etc. The lyrics are simplistic and often have minimal relevance to the story.

But – and it’s a huge but – it is fun, joyful and entertaining.

Director JR Bruno has done a fine job with it, by focusing on the main characters: Donna; her daughter Sophia; the three men Sam, Bill, Harry; and Donna’s two friends, Rosie and Tanya. This allows the actors to create more fully realized characters rather than falling into shtick or stereotypes. For many numbers we hear the ensemble, but they are hidden off stage; again this helps us focus on the main characters.

An addition that Bruno has made is more problematic. Various times during the show we see the “young” Donna as well as the “young” Bill, Harry and Sam. They don’t speak but do have some rather awkward dance moves. It doesn’t really work.

What does work is the overall excellent cast that Ivoryton has assembled, beginning with Laiona Michelle as Donna. She has a terrific voice and presence. Her Donna is practical and realistic and lonely. Her two friends, Tanya played by Carly Callahan and Rosie played by Jessie Alagna. Do not exaggerate their character’s traits: Tanya – a multiple divorcee who favors wealthy men and Rosie – the loner who has a wicked sense of humor. It would easy to overplay the lust of Tanya or the comic side of Rosie. In this production, Tanya’s flirtation with Pepper, a younger man who works at the tavern that Donna runs, is just that: a good natured flirtation.

The three men in Donna’s past are also very good: Sam, the American architect, has the largest role. Cooper Grodin projects the loneliness of a man who wants to go back in time and redo his past. Dane Agostinis plays Bill, the travel writer who is Australian. The accent sometimes comes and go and the costume is too obvious. As the British Harry, Billy Clark Taylor is very good but again the accent is sporadic. Each carries their songs, though Sam is obviously the most important of three and has more solos.

This brings us to Sophia, the bride-to-me and her groom, Sky. The latter is a very bland character who is only sketched in; Jack Kay does not manage to give us more than the script provides, though he has a good singing voice. Stephanie Gomeréz is perky and young as Sophie with a sweet voice.

Now to some of the minor missteps.

The set by Glenn Bassett has a semicircle protruding out, cutting down the playing area except when it is opened to reveal Donna’s bedroom. This both seems awkward but also a way to bring the actors to the front of the stage, increasing the intimacy. It also prevents large scale dance numbers. At first glance the set seems “not quite right’ in color for a Greek island, but with the effective lighting, I grew to like it.

Lighting Designer Marcus Abbott has used several good effects to convey the Greek island sunsets and evening lighting.

The biggest misstep is a minor character who doesn’t fit the tone that has been established and tends to draw our attention away from the others. Sophie has two friends on the island: Lisa and Ali. Though Ali is supposed to be the more going of the two, as performed by Cameron Khalil Sokes, Ali becomes a distraction not only totally overshadowing Ana Yi Puig as Lisa but at times Sophie, Sky and even Donna.

I am not a fan of Mamma Mia but if you are, you will enjoy this production. People were dancing in the aisle. I had a good time.

For tickets, visit Ivoryton Playhouse or call 860-787-7318.

This content is courtesy of Shore Publications and zip06.

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