True story: I totally dig ABBA, and in this sometimes-cynical world, I’ve grown an even fonder appreciation for Mamma Mia! and its unapologetic ability to simply spread joy. Suffice it to say, I was excited for Thursday’s preview performance, and even more so because my dear friend who accompanied me had never been to the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse before. As it turns out, director Michael Brindish’s production is the perfect introduction to this venue; even the Rock Island theatre's seasoned patrons are in for a treat. While this Mamma Mia! felt familiar – here I go again – there were a few tricks up its sleeve, making it, for me, a unique experience.
Obviously, the plot hasn’t changed: Sophie (the honey-voiced Caroline Portner) is getting married, and, on the sly, invites the three men who could be her father to the wedding without her the awareness or approval of her mother Donna (a lovingly exasperated Kim Vanderginst, whose portrayal on Thursday still seemed somewhat tentative). All three gentlemen show up 24 hours before the nuptials are to occur … and, with Mamma Mia! set to ABBA’s hit songs, secrets are uncovered as everyone discovers the truths behind their relationships to one another.
The on-stage friendships were my personal favorite relationships in Brindish's production. Sophie and her best friends/bridesmaids Lisa (Taylor Lynn) and Ali (Sylvia Muchmore) have an energetic and entertaining rapport from the start of their song “Honey, Honey.” Donna and her best friends Tanya (a knockout Sarah Hayes) and Rosie (the hilarious Caitie L. Moss) form the ex-girl-band trio with a rich dynamic; whenever Hayes and Moss were on stage, it was evident there would be laughs aplenty. Vanderginst, Hayes, and Moss had many shining moments, but their handling of “Dancing Queen” (a school-dance staple and ABBA’s only chart-topping hit in the U.S.!) was an elixir of sheer perfection. They genuinely appeared to be haaaving the tiiime of their liiives!
Let’s not forget the potential fathers, as Harry (Thomas J. Besler), Sam (Bobby Becher), and Bill (Dan Hasty) all brought a good deal of fun to the stage, as well. While the age discrepancy initially threw me off because at least one of these potential dads is of a scandalous age to have fathered a 20-year-old, that didn’t bother my companion. (And I definitely asked.) All three actors here held their own and were equally loveable. It ain’t no lie: Everyone gets a chance to shine, especially Hasty, who has a hysterical moment late in Act II during “Take a Chance on Me.” While Sophie’s intended Sky (a likeable Tommy McCarthy) gets his own moment to shine late in the first act, Sophie and Donna, despite all the men surrounding them, display a mother/daughter bond that’s the real champ of this story. Even through the stresses life throws at them, this pair is there for each other. Meanwhile, music director Ron May should be proud, because there was never a moment in which anything sounded off. ABBA’s tunes are safe in this cast’s hands.
Among the most gratifying things about this production were Bradley Robert Jensen’s costumes. Was Donna wearing the apparently requisite overalls? Yes. Was that about all that felt familiar? Also yes. Particularly delightful were Donna and the Dynamo’s outfits: Traditional bell-bottomed jumpsuits these were not. And I loved it! From the short shorts and beachwear to the curtain-call ensembles, each wardrobe element made the wearer look their best.
Also helping this cast look their best was choreographer Ashley Becher. The beach bop of “Does Your Mother Know?” was one of my favorite numbers, thanks to Becher’s choreography paired with Jensen’s costumes and Hayes’ ability to actually soar. But truly, there are plenty of breathtaking dance moves in this production. The pas de deux during “Our Last Summer,” for instance, the choreography for which might quite honestly knock your socks off. No spoilers, but at the top of Act II on Thursday, one dancer startled a patron so much that she shrieked loudly. So fair warning if you spook easily: Keep your eyes open during Mamma Mia!, because you never know where a dancer might appear. (They can dance; they can jive!)
In a production sprinkled with technical delights, including Kathleen Voecks’ Greek-island scenic backdrop, Haley Brown’s lighting design felt a tad underwhelming. Thursday's preview performance was still technically a rehearsal, so hopefully the issue of actors’ faces not always being well lit has been solved. It surprised me that the string lights over the house weren’t employed sooner than they were, given how evident they are. And I do question the almost-criminal choice to not take advantage of the non-spinning disco ball that was in clear sight all night – because if ABBA doesn’t inspire the use of one, what will?
Yet in a production that was otherwise so solid, it almost doesn’t matter that the lighting on Thursday didn’t wow (disco-ball gap notwithstanding). Blending inspired costumes, choreographic surprises, some of the most infectious tunes in pop history, and impeccable comedic deliveries by the ensemble, this Mamma Mia! is a fresh Circa ’21 experience. It will dance it’s way right into your heart!
Mamma Mia! runs at the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse (1828 Third Avenue, Rock Island IL) through July 8, and more information and tickets are available by calling (309)786-7733 extension 2 and visiting Circa21.com.