To show you how little importance the plot for the jukebox musical Mamma Mia! is, the printed program lists no scenes from the show, only an alphabetical checklist of the 22 songs inserted into the story. For all its success, Mamma Mia! has never been considered high Broadway art, but one can’t deny the fact that the feel-good musical based on the songs of 1970s Swedish supergroup ABBA has few peers when it comes to creating audience excitement and participation. Even on a normally languorous Saturday matinee, fans in the orchestra section of the cavernous Fred Kavli Theatre were on their feet, cheering their favorite songs.
Mamma Mia! marks the return of 5-Star Theatricals in presenting a show they had originally scheduled for March 2020, before the curtain fell on all live performing arts throughout the country due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The show also welcomes back Lewis Wilkenfeld, former artistic director of Cabrillo Music Theatre, 5-Star’s previous incarnation, who serves as the show’s producer.
Mamma Mia!, which arrived on Broadway in 2001, marked the first successful jukebox musical, a genre that is focused on the body of work of a singular songwriter or musical group. In a traditional, integrated musical, songs are written to further the story, but in a jukebox musical, the methodology is turned upside down, with a story line written around existing songs. The ill-fitting nature of most of the songs in Mamma Mia! made for high camp entertainment with rabid ABBA fans and most companies that perform the show do so with tongue in cheek, but the songs in Mamma Mia! don’t really advance the story at all, although some are skillfully positioned within it.
Directed by Richard Israel, 5-Star’s production features a top-notch cast, headed by solid performances from its three Actors Equity stars: Kim Huber, Eric Martsolf, and Sandy Bainum. Huber has pretty much done it all in musical theatre; starring in the first national touring company of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, but also taking on challenging roles in shows like Big Fish, The Last Five Years, and Floyd Collins. Huber plays the central role of Donna Sheridan, an independently-minded single mom who runs a quaint taverna on a Greek island with her 20-year-old daughter Sophie (played with great likability by Nicolette Norgaard) who is engaged to be married to hunky surf guy Sky (Max DeLoach). In the show, Huber is given many chances to show off her vocal ability, blowing the roof off of the theater with a powerful and passionate performance of “The Winner Takes It All” in Act II, which brought forth exuberant cheers from the audience.
Joining Donna for the wedding are Tanya and Rosie, two BFFs who helped her comprise the disco trio Donna & the Dynamos back in the swingin’ ’70s. Sandy Bainum plays the promiscuous cougar Tanya to the hilt and does a nice job on “Does Your Mother Know,” her condescending anti-vamp solo sung to rebuff Pepper (Christopher Jewell Valentin), a cabana boy-on-the-make who is no match for her wiles.
As Rosie, the other third of the trio, Lisa Dyson resembles the late Alice Ghostley, an actress who usually played man-hungry wallflowers. In the song “Take a Chance On Me,” Rosie chases Father-Designate No. 2 Bill Austin (Christopher Robert Smith) around the furniture with hilarious results.
Martsolf, a longtime cast member of the daytime soap opera The Days Of Our Lives (as Brady Black), is excellent as Sam Carmichael, one of three potential dads Sophie invites to her wedding, hoping that one of them would reveal himself as her unidentified father. For a guy who has been doing close-ups on a TV set for fifteen years, Martsolf, whose roots are in musical theater, moves and sings well, especially on his solo number, “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” as he describes his failed marriage and imparts fatherly advice to Sophie.
Nicolette Norgaard does a fine job in her co-leading role as Sophie, and possesses a lovely voice, which begins the show with the ABBA song “I Have a Dream,” which is given an appropriately Greek flavor with the use of a bouzouki-like accompaniment on guitar.
There is no real drama in Mamma Mia!, due to the fact that there is no real antagonist and the only conflict is the one in Sophie’s head as to the identity of her real biological father. The audience doesn’t care which of the trio of men is the real dad because they are all so darned likable, and frankly, neither does Donna.
The great cast does its best to amplify the dumb, far-fetched plot, whose dialog is laced with tired lines like “You have your whole life ahead of you,” while waiting for the next song to begin.
Scenic designer Stephen Gifford chose to eschew the brightly lit, blue-and-white limestone edifices that are typical of much Greek architecture in favor of more subdued, earth-tones. Whereas many theatre companies are using rear projections in place of standing set pieces, abstract backgrounds are used instead in this production. The result is that you wouldn’t know this was a Greek island if you didn’t know the story.
Anthony Lucca’s eight-piece rock combo does a fine job accompanying without overwhelming the singers. Despite its faults, Mamma Mia! is still an enjoyable show, if you ignore the story and just enjoy the melody-rich songs and colorful production numbers. That’s “the name of the game.”
Mamma Mia! plays through October 24 at the Kavli Theatre in the Bank of American Performing Arts Center in Thousand Oaks. For tickets, visit 5StarTheatricals.com