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Brush off Your Disco Shoes for Incline’s “Mamma Mia!”

One of the most popular of the so-called Jukebox Musicals, “Mamma Mia!” roared onto the Warsaw Federal Incline Theater.  Featuring songs written by the men of ABBA (Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus), “Mamma Mia!” relates the quest of Sophie Sheridan (Lexi Rigsby) to discover her biological father.  Unbeknownst to her mother Donna (Helen Anneliesa Raymond-Goers) and her fiancé Sky (Jackson Hurt), Sophie invites three men, whose names she discovered in her mother’s diary, to her impending wedding.  Confusion reigns supreme thereafter.  Whether you are a fan of ABBA’s music or not, the songs and show are exhilarating, exuberant, infectious and fun.  This show is one of my guilty pleasures.

Jukebox Musicals are shows featuring the music of a composer or entertainer (such as “All Shook Up” with Elvis music), with a small story weaving together the songs. In this case, twenty of ABBA’s best known songs including “Honey, Honey,” “Dancing Queen,” “Take a Chance on Me,” and the title song explode onto the stage with riotous singing and dancing. 

Despite many characters, this is the story of mother and daughter, their relationship, their love and their disappointments.  Rigsby plays Sophie as an inquisitive, energetic teen who is excited about her pending nuptials but still longing to know her heritage.  The show is bookended with one of ABBAs best songs, “I Have a Dream”.  Rigsby didn’t quite hit some of the high notes initially (probably opening night jitters) but, as the night progressed, starting singing with gusto while hitting all the notes.  She and Donna are on stage throughout most of the show so their performances are crucial.  Raymond-Goers portrays Donna as wary and somewhat world-weary.  She has had to create and run a business (a taverna on a Greek island) while raising a child single-handedly but she valiantly strives on.

When confronted with the three men in her lifetime twenty-one years later, she is angry, befuddled and feeling somewhat betrayed because she doesn’t know that Sophie has invited them.  Each of the men, Harry Bright (Brian Anderson), Bill Austin (Dan Doerger) and Sam Carmichael (Ryan Poole) had never met and were equally confused about why they were there.  The female characters of Donna and Sophie are well drawn by playwright Catherine Johnson but there is a bland sameness to the three men.  Each of the men has their day, however, with duets between Sam and Donna (“SOS”), Sophie and Bill (“The Name of the Game”) and Donna and Harry (”Our Last Summer”).  The singing is well done and helps propel the story.

Also invited to the wedding are two of Donna’s best friends and members of a singing trio including Tanya (Lesley Taylor) and Rosie (Annie Schneider).  The “trio” provides the comic relief and Taylor and Schneider chew up the scenery. Tanya and Rosie try to brighten up Donna’s mood about the three men by reminiscing about their single days with the rambunctious “Chiquitita” and “Dancing Queen” and later resurrect their performance (complete with disco costumes designed by Caren Brady) of “Super Trouper”.  Their songs are among the highlights.

I don’t get to talk about lighting very much but it almost becomes a character, especially in the first act.  Denny Reed (lighting) and Brett Bowling have combined on two interesting scenes.  During the songs “Money, Money, Money” and “Mamma Mia,” the onstage singers are bathed in a red glow but, then, several window panels open with other women singing the refrain highlighted by green light as a counter to the lead singers.  

Another interesting set of scenes occur when the chorus starts singing “Gimme, Gimme, Gimme” and then freezes while Sophie approaches each of the three men asking if they are her father.  At the end of the first act, a similar device is used when the song “Voulez Vous” is interrupted while each of the men want to walk Sophie down the aisle.  

This is not an opera but there are a lot of songs.  Veteran theatergoers may find the musical arrangements somewhat jarring but, at the insistence of the composers, all of the songs feature the original “pop music” style versus a theatrical arrangement.  This “pop” treatment is further enhanced with an off-stage chorus frequently backing up the lead singers on stage.  The band, with Conductor Steve Goers, reproduce the ABBA sound well.

Dramatically, the key song is “The Winner Takes it All” where Donna confronts Sam about Sophie’s parentage.  Bitterly, Donna sings: “The winner takes it all.  The loser standing small.”  Later in the song, she intones: “I don’t wanna talk ‘cause it makes me feel sad.  And I understand, you’ve come to shake my hand.”  All of her pent-up emotions explode into this plaintive cry which Raymond-Goers captures beautifully.  

But, this is primarily a fun-filled evening, so let’s dispense with the drama and return to the disco music.  There is, predictably, a happy ending (this is an old style musical after all) and several of the big ABBA hits are reprised at the end.  The large ensemble cast adds to the magic with good singing and dancing.   The show is a little uneven but it still is fun entertainment.

So, dust off your old disco outfit and those ABBA records in the corner of the basement and boogie on down the Warsaw Federal Incline Theater for “Mamma Mia!”, running through May 26.