Mamma Mia! What a Show!

I am going to admit something here, and once it’s in print, it is here forever — I really like Mamma Mia! And no, I’m not a closet ABBA fan. In fact, I turn ABBA off if it happens to find its way to whatever station I’m listening to. And, as a general rule I don’t like jukebox musicals. But give me the Mamma Mia! soundtrack and I’m in. It’s just one of those joyous musicals you can’t help but sing along to, and although this is categorized as a jukebox musical, I take issue with that because this show has heart. Academy Players brings that heart front and center with their current production, running through November 24.

One of the reasons this show has remained on my theatrical bucket list is that it is just refreshing to see musicals where women in my age group have some great songs, and aren’t only relegated to bit parts. They have not only fun songs, but with Academy’s production they are celebrated and highlighted. While we’re talking about shows with some female power, I have to acknowledge the female power of Academy. On opening night, as director Rita Maron gave the preshow speech, she was joined by almost the entire board of Academy — all women. In a day and age where we, as a society, are always looking for the moments in entertainment where women are the ones making decisions, I think we forget that here in Rhode Island we do see this in our community, and notably with Academy Players. In addition, each Friday night a mom is nominated to be celebrated and honored. In a world where we always say we want to lift people up, Academy walks that walk.

But now for the show. The second you walk into the theater, you’re transported to the Mediterranean with a set by Maron Construction that is simply top notch, with stucco walls, inlets with lit candles and even a wall of ivy. Alexander Sprague’s lighting design sets the mood with disco-ish blue lights which, due to their color, can’t help but transport you to crystal clear waters. Before the orchestra even begins the entr’acte, you are already in a great mood and ready for a night of musical theater.

What a show. Immediately, we meet Sophie, played by Mariah Harrington, who is ready to meet her dad as she sends out three different invitations for her wedding. Why three? She discovers through some snooping that her mother Donna, played wonderfully by Donna Gorham, had two rebounds after breaking up with Sam, played sublimely by Bill Bullard. Of course, in true musical comedy fashion, the three men show up under the assumption that Donna herself has invited them, which gets the ball rolling for one unforgettable wedding weekend. One aspect of the show that I quite enjoy is the mirroring of friendships through the two generations as Sophie’s friends, Ali and Lisa, arrive (Brianna Bier and Brianna Geyer, respectively), and in the very next scene, Donna’s friends Tanya (Diane Mahoney) and Rosie (Allii Fontaine) follow suit. Maron did a particularly touching job directing this fleeting moment, and by the time Donna’s friends enter, you can’t stop smiling.

This production is filled with memorable moments, and I know I’m going to end up leaving some out, so I want to say here that there was not one moment I did not enjoy of this show. The ensemble, as always with an Academy show, was terrific. Harrington’s beautiful voice is the perfect beginning to the show, filling the theater, transfixing all from the first note until the very last. Her portrayal of Sophie was just phenomenal, shining in so many numbers, but particularly in “Under Attack,” an amazing number that also showcased Julia Gillis’s choreography. Gorham broke my heart more than once during this production, most notably during “The Winner Takes It All” and “Slipping Through My Fingers.” Tanya and Rosie, Donna’s friends (Diane Mahoney and Alli Fontaine), were hysterical, but also brought on one of the more tender moments with “Chiquita.” “Lay All Your Love on Me” was a fantastic number led by Sky, Sophie’s fiancé (Jack Bailey), and backed up by the male ensemble, most notably Pepper and Eddie (Mitch Bertolino and Michael Carnevale). The other prospective dads, Harry and Bill, played by Stephen Antonelli and John Morris, were very funny in their roles.

Julia Gillis’ choreography is fantastic from beginning to end. Outstanding, in particular, were “Voulez Vous” and “Dancing Queen.” The choreography in “Dancing Queen” was hysterical, an awesome moment that made the events on stage seem ever more real, and Ms. Gillis must be commended for putting together the funniest kick line I have ever seen in “Lay All Your Love on Me.” Overall, “Money Money Money” — between the choreography and Sprague’s lighting design — I didn’t want the number to end! Donna’s internal struggle was on full display for that piece and was just one moment out of many that gave this production its soul.  

Academy Players has as hit on their hands, and you do not want to miss out!

Mamma Mia! will run until November 24 at Academy Players, with shows at 7pm, and matinee offerings at 4pm. Visit academyplayersri.org for tickets and more information. The majority of the principals are co-studies, where the show dates rotate between the performances, so if you are going to see someone in particular, call ahead.

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