Here We Go Again: TBTS Delivers Another Hit

tbts-mamma_mia-ensembleWhen I was in my teens and still amassing a music collection, I was eager to catch up on the classic rock and pop acts that had made their mark just prior to my getting seriously into music. To that end, I was gobbling up greatest hits collections by powerhouse acts from the ’60s and ‘70s. While ABBA didn’t necessarily hit my radar until a little later (even though “Knowing Me Knowing You” was a major hit the year I started listening to radio in earnest), I cornered the market in releases by most of the usual suspects, including one of the more theatrical acts of the ’70s, Styx. In my mind, while listening to their bloated, yet enjoyable mini-epics, I would form a musical production in my head, using all of these songs as source material. In the end, this imaginary production was haphazard in plot, a bit forced, but had great music and, in my mind, amazing production numbers. Flash forward to 1999, and someone did exactly that, except they used ABBA Gold (and an obscure 1968 Gina Lollobrigida film) as the basis for what came to be known as one of the hottest jukebox musicals ever conceived, Mamma Mia!

I’m sure there are far more ABBA fans than Styx fans in this world (and rightfully so), especially in the world of musical theater, and to call Mamma Mia! a punchline around which a long joke was written cannot possibly detract from the love people have for ABBA in general, and this play in particular. Knowing ahead of time that your audience will love the music only means that a production requires a crack orchestra, a stellar cast and a director with enough taste and talent to pull it off. Unsurprisingly, Theatre by the Sea has checked off that entire list.

Director/Choreographer Kevin P. Hill’s enthusiasm for this project is palpable. He took to the internet and enthused, “Ever since Mamma Mia! hit Broadway, I wanted the chance to direct and choreograph the show. What can I say?? I love ABBA!!! Finally, I get to put my original stamp on the show. I have an incredible cast and an amazing creative team backing my vision…This show is about hope, family and love. I would say we need this right about now. Much love!!!” His work has resulted in a production that not only lives up to the original, but transforms the barn in Matunuck into a Greek taverna on the beach, overflowing with music, humor and pure joy.

The plot is simple – a young woman, raised by a single mother who now owns and operates a taverna on a Greek island, is about to be married. Not knowing her real father, she scans her mother’s diary for clues and winds up inviting the top three candidates to the wedding. Hilarity (and a few surprisingly sensitive moments) ensues, everyone jams an ABBA classic somewhere into the storyline (none of which advance the story in any meaningful way) and we get a rainbow-colored disco-tinged dance party into the evening. It’s almost pointless to critique this production in any of the usual ways, because it’s perfect. Even the sets are incredible, with Kyle Dixon’s beach vista ringing so true that one sometimes feels as if Hill ordered the barn’s back door open and allowed us to see Carpenter’s beach glistening in the moonlit distance. Jose Santiago’s lighting design completes the skewed perspectives and even allows room for an eerily shadowed nightmare. Mike Hyde’s sound design is crisp and clean, balancing the exuberant sound of a rock/pop score with the subtlety required for theatrical presentation.

So, what of the cast? Mostly seasoned Broadway veterans or Boston Conservatory students with excellent resumes make up the bulk of the company, with no real locals in sight. The shining lights among many excellent performances are the “Donna and the Dynamos” trio of Erica Mansfield, Tari Kelly and the magnificent Jeanette Bayardelle. All three get their chances to shine, but it is Mansfield’s Donna who owns the show. While the three of them bring down the house again and again with renditions of songs like “Dancing Queen” and “Super Trooper” (and ode to a spotlight that often gets mistaken for being  about almost anything else but stage tech), Mansfield’s solo “The Winner Takes It All” is worth the price of admission alone. The younger cast members are all spry, lithe and eager, with impeccable dancing chops and the ability to harmonize background vocals with casual precision. Much of the credit also goes to Bob Bray’s musical direction here, which allows for the music to live easily between the rock and musical theater worlds.

Mamma Mia! In lesser hands might be a colorful mess, but Theater by the Sea has the winner that they knew they would deliver as soon as they announced this year’s season. Even for those who may consider ABBA’s music a bit too kitschy for their taste, this production holds enough charm and light to get even the grumpiest toes tapping. You want your theater to be a little less sunny and heavier on the drama? Well, wait for Chicago to open up later this summer. Mamma Mia! is here through July 21 and if you can find an stray seat available, snap it up. Donna and the Dynamos are waiting to make you dance.

Bill Hanney’s Theatre By The Sea presents Mamma Mia! through July 21. 364 Cards Pond Rd Wakefield. For tickets and more information, call 401-782-8587 or email boxoffice.tbts@gmail.com

 

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