Sierra Rep Sparkles With An Island Wedding
By MIKE TAYLOR · For CALAVERAS ENTERPRISE
It should not work. There is no form of reality, no matter how conjured or carefully catalogued, in which it feels plausible, yet “Mamma Mia!” is one of the most fun musicals you might sit through in a darkened theater. Sierra Repertory Theatre presents this feel-good conceit at the East Sonora Theatre through April 8, and I think you’d better get your tickets before every single seat sells out.
The improbability of the story comes to light as soon as the lights come up. Sophie is getting married on the small Greek island of Kalokairi, where her mother, Donna, has raised her by herself. Donna hasn’t shared much of her lively past with her daughter, it seems, and when Sophie finds Donna’s diary – and reads about three suitors who might have been with Donna at just the right moment – she surreptitiously invites the trio to her wedding, hoping one of them is her father. Let the disbelief begin!
As much as I might have wanted to glower at the insanity of that plot point, once “Honey, Honey” starts three months later – after bridesmaids Ali and Lisa swirl onto the scene – all illusions of this show spending time in reality fade gloriously away. That’s the thing about “Mamma Mia!” its ABBA music just makes the world an easier place in which to live.
Donna, we soon learn, was once the lead singer of Donna and the Dynamos, and when Rosie and Tanya breeze into the taverna, Donna remembers the good ol’ days. Cat Yates is full of quirky fun as Rosie, who has longed for companionship for quite some time. Brenda O’Brien steals her scenes as Tanya, the loaded leg of this triad, who has been married three times and jokes constantly about getting her due from her exes.
I’ll take a break here and note that I’ve skipped through several numbers in the show, basically because I can’t gush over every one of them here. Benny Anderson’s and Bjorn Ulvaeus’ music and lyrics are taken as gospel by this impressive cast (some songs were written with Stig Anderson), and in “Chiquitita,” Donna and the Dynamos get solid backup vocals from what feels like the entire women’s ensemble, even though we cannot see them. The fact that the gals grab hairbrushes and curling irons to serve as microphones emphasizes the joy.
As the would-be fathers arrive, Sophie is struck in ways she hadn’t imagined, as each man tells his and Donna’s story, complete with hearts going pitter-patter. Since the guys don’t realize why they’re at the island, their confusion fuels a bit of fun behind the scenes as Sophie tries to figure out who should walk her down the aisle.
Alan Gillespie is solid and slightly emotional as Sam, the beau who scribbled the plans for Donna’s taverna on a cocktail napkin way back when. Kipp Moorman is fun as Bill, the guy whose Aunt Sophie left Donna the money to start her island paradise. Russell Garrett is sturdy, almost upper-crust enjoyment as Harry, the first man to learn Sophie’s secret reason for bringing the men to the island.
I’m mostly skipping Act II because how the inanity comes together is something to be seen and heard in person. I will alert you to some of the shenanigans that you must keep your eyes and ears ready to enjoy.
Hanz Enyeart and Jesse Graham are almost Abbott and Costello as Eddie and Pepper, who work for Donna. These boys are fun to watch compete for Tanya’s attention.
Bobby Cook Gallagher plays Sky, Sophie’s fiance, as a jock with a heart, though his posse is closer to the new guys on Netflix’s version of “Queer Eye” than a team on the pitch. Gallagher’s voice blends beautifully with Carrie Brandon’s when Sky and Sophie sing briefly together in “Lay All Your Love on Me.”
Brandon makes a beautiful Sierra Rep debut as Sophie. Her voice is a treat and she easily plays the comedy and drama the role requires. Her effervescence often lifts scenes that might have otherwise felt flat or could have slowed this show’s perfect pace to a lumbering crawl.
Leading this cast is Becky Saunders as Donna. We know Saunders can play comedy and drama and even sing, but her Donna is every bit as feisty as the character suggests on paper, and she has a blast whenever she gets to play with the Dynamos. This is Saunders’ 38th show, either onstage or backstage, and the troupe is fortunate to have her as the managing director.
Valerie Rachelle makes a fine SRT directorial debut here, and her choreography is downright adorable (I must have written that word six times in my notes). Do not miss the men’s ensemble during “Lay All Your Love on Me”; it’s the stuff of good times at the beach without falling into the surf!
John C. Brown returns to the Mother Lode to provide musical direction here and the tunes all sound wonderful. There’s some playfulness in some songs and that bounding ABBA rhythm carries us along like we’re floating with the quartet on a cloud. What I find especially refreshing during “Mamma Mia!” is the way the soundtrack’s volume is adjusted for singers who don’t quite have the oomph to rise above the fun; it gives each featured vocalist the chance to shine.
Dana Moran Williams’ set is simple, but that allows trifles to be added when called for, which makes everything feel like we’ve landed in a fantasyland. Rebecca Meredith’s costumes add to that fantastical flair (don’t think she skipped the platform shoes that were an ABBA trademark!). And Mark Sali’s lighting design is both a disco delight and emotionally on point.
I love this show. It’s what Sierra Repertory Theatre does best, with a terrific cast packed with talent and a supporting staff that doesn’t miss a beat, or a moment, or a bauble. You’ll laugh, roll your eyes and even cry a little, but you will certainly leave the theater with a bounce in your step.
Join the “Mamma Mia!” party as soon as you can. The opening weekend Sunday matinee was standing room only, so the lines will only get longer as the Gold Country learns about this sparkling nugget. Just be careful that you don’t burst into song until the curtain call!
Published February 23, 2018