Theater Review: ‘Mamma Mia!’ — All the Pop and Twice the Fizz

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    The ensemble of Northern Stage's production of "Mamma Mia!" Rob Strong photograph

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    From left, Tanisha Moore, Clare Howes Eisentrout and Dani Westhead appear in a scene from "Mamma Mia!" at Northern Stage in White River Junction. Rob Strong photograph

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 4/27/2017 12:05:57 AM
Modified: 4/27/2017 12:06:03 AM

Asking a critic to review Mamma Mia!, the musical that strings together ABBA’s greatest hits, is like asking her to review the Easter Bunny or your kid’s performance as an adorable fluffy sheep in a first-grade performance of Mary Had a Little Lamb.

When the film version of Mamma Mia! came out in 2008, I remember reading a chorus of uniformly tepid to bad reviews, and wondering why the critics even bothered to summon disdain for the enterprise, with their talk about inept camera angles and flawed directorial decisions.

After all, this wasn’t a movie with any pretensions toward seriousness or sophisticated comedy.

It’s ABBA! Anna, Bjorn, Benny and Agnetha! The winners of the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest for Waterloo! Sweden’s most successful cultural export since Ingmar Bergman! It was supposed to be, and still is, silly fun.

Which brings me to the current exuberant production of Mamma Mia!, directed by Northern Stage’s Artistic Director Carol Dunne at the Barrette Center for the Arts in White River Junction.

Let’s get the story out of the way: Winsome Sophie Sheridan, about to wed at age 20 on a picturesque Greek island, invites three of her mother’s ex-boyfriends to the ceremony, certain that one of them is her father, whom she’s never known.

Her free-spirited mother, Donna Sheridan, wonders why her daughter wants to settle down at such a young age, and doesn’t realize that Sophie has issued wedding invitations to the three former lovers. Is the father earnest American Sam Carmichael, slightly stodgy Brit Harry Bright or adventurous Aussie Bill Austin? Folderol ensues.

The story and dialogue, such as they are, are mere excuses for a pretty glorious run of superior pop tunes performed by a committed group of actors who are also dancers and singers.

So what if the songs have titles like Souper Douper, Ring Ring, and I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do?

And with such lyrics as “Honey honey, how you thrill me, a-ha, honey honey. Honey honey, nearly kill me, a-ha, honey honey,” I doubt that Rodgers and Hammerstein, if they were still alive, would be looking over their shoulders in trepidation.

But, who cares what the carpers have to say?

After all, which EuroVision Super Group gave us Dancing Queen, one of the greatest pop songs ever, and the launchpad for an infinite number of dreamy adolescent fantasies?

Let’s just say that when I heard the first soaring, swaying notes of Dancing Queen during the performance I briefly considered rescinding my strict policy of not rising from my seat until the lights come back up at the end.

And lest you think that a musical based on the ABBA songbook is only for people of a certain age, the 20-somethings next to me were dancing in their seats, pumping their fists and emitting the occasional YEAH! Such is the power of a catchy pop hook.

The two leads, Clare Howes Eisentrout, as Sophie, and Anne Torsiglieri, as Donna, are the heart and soul of the show. Eisentrout has a clear, sweet voice and persona, winsome without being cloying, while Torsiglieri has a powerhouse voice and the ability to go from comedy to lighter drama with ease. Both are making their first appearances with Northern Stage.

Eric Bunge (Bill Austin), Mark Epperson (Sam Carmichael) and Kurt Zischke (Harry Bright) provide able comic relief as the suitors. Susan Haefner and Jean McCormick as, respectively, Donna’s friends Tanya and Rosie, are delightful.

What else is there to say about the rest of the ensemble except that they shimmy and sashay their hearts out, thanks to the energetic choreography of Kyle Brand.

David Arsenault, who has designed sets for Opera North, has done another stellar job of suggesting an entire world, in this case a taverna on a Greek island with the sea in the distance, within the confines of a smallish stage.

At the end of the show, the audience rose to its feet and danced along with the cast as they sang Dancing Queen and Waterloo.

It’s corny, true, but we should be grateful that theater can give us these moments of communal joy and pleasure. So let’s not look this Swedish gift horse in the mouth.

Mamma Mia!continues at the Barrette Center for the Arts through May 21. For tickets and information go to northernstage.org, or call the box office at 802-296-7000.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.




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