Familiar ABBA songs turn into a series of one-act plays, each with its own comic twist or emotional payoff in Bucks County Playhouse’s lively, funny, and moving — yes, moving — production of “Mamma Mia!”
The duet, “Lay All Your Love On Me” escalates from a sweet pledge between two young lovers to a rollicking production number complete with a surprise kickline of well-honed male dancers outfitted in yellow webbed water fins, underwater goggles, and other diving gear.
“Take a Chance On Me” is a hilariously feisty frontal assault perpetrated by eager lovers expressing the culmination of a 20-year attraction. “I Do, I Do” turns into a lovely moment, as witty as it is affecting. Disco moves abound.
Amid all the merriment, director John Tartaglia and cast infuse serious sequences with dramatic honesty that give this “Mamma Mia!” depth that is usually overlooked.
Not only does the production slow down to let the musical’s story come through, it features a stirring moment when Donna (Michelle Dawson) lets loose decades of repressed feelings in “The Winner Takes It All.”
Tartaglia’s is a wonderful “Mamma Mia!,” supported mightily by Shannon Lewis’s loopily inventive choreography, Anna Louizos’s versatile set, and Gina Scherr’s lighting design that works marvels with shadows and brightly illuminating one section of the stage while making another appear as if it’s in black-and-white.
“Fun” is the watchword in this production. It moves with precision and always has a visual delight, including several sight gags, ready to add to the entertainment.
The story of Sophie, daughter of a former lead in the band Donna and the Dynamos, and her attempt to find the father who will give her away on her wedding day by inviting three potentials to that very same wedding, “Mamma Mia!” is one of those musicals that often gets a bad rap, totally undeserved.
Audiences love it and have supported it since it came to the stage in 1999. It’s a reliable crowd-pleaser that has a mature, even intelligent sensibility, and makes excellent use of core material, tunes written by ABBA’s Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, and some by Stig Anderson, as fitted to a story by Catherine Johnson.
Johnson’s work ties everything together. Using a plot that recalls an Italian play, and offshoot movie, Johnson gives “Mamma Mia!” an involving context, one Tartaglia takes time to give some focus.
Johnson had to invent a story and did a fabulous job of it. But Andersson and Ulvaeus do more than help. ABBA songs were written at a time when lyrics still mattered. Each tune has its story to tell and does so articulately and often with wit and romantic insight. As pop tunes go, ABBA’s have the completeness and sequence of thought found in older lyrics.
I’m not confusing Andersson and Ulvaeus with Ira Gershwin or Lorenz Hart, but I’ve been drawn to their music because it goes beyond the shallow and simplistic so prevalent in today’s music, in which one phrase repeated ad nauseum, to the same tune no less, passes as writing.
Tartaglia mines all the best that Johnson, Andersson, and Ulvaeus provide him. He develops Johnson’s story so it’s credible and touching, rather than merely functional, and he shows a writer’s knack for setting up dance sequences.
Choreographer Lewis comes right on his heels, no pun intended, in that department. Numbers that are often the entire raison d’etre for “Mamma Mia!” flow more organically.
Perhaps the song “Mamma Mia!” itself seems to spring from nowhere, and a little more set-up for the romantic entanglement of Donna’s friends and bandmates (Danielle Lee Greaves and Terra C. McLeod), would be nice, but except for those miniscule cavils, this “Mamma Mia!” is tops.
The cast is high among the assets. Tartaglia goes for an ensemble approach. While Dawson’s Donna and Sara Masterson’s Sophie are definitely the leads, every featured player gets a specific moment in which to shine. All take good advantage of it. Tartaglia is particularly generous to the three men who figure so prominently in the plot. Giving them time and space to establish themselves and their relationship to Donna and Sophie adds to the dramatic impact of the production.
Dawson wears her character’s tension and frustrations in her bones and is always clenched and primed for the next calamity destined to irritate her. Life for Donna is a problem to be solved. And Dawson’s intensity helps to set up lighter moments, especially towards the end of the show, and make them more telling.
Sophie has the unenviable task of setting up the show with her opening lyric, “I Have a Dream.” Using a lower register than her usual voice, Masterson gives this “Mamma Mia!” an excellent start. The first moment presages well. Masterson’s Sophie is more mature and worldly than usual, and that works since it underscores the decisions Sophie has to make.
Devin Lewis is an agile Sky, the groom-to-be, whose easygoing nature flows from his acting to his dancing and makes his dramatic moments stronger.
Danielle Lee Greaves finds the mischievousness of Rosie, Donna’s friend and bandmate from another day. She also can be a conciliating force. Terra C. McLeod is wonderful as the sexy socialite Tanya, also a friend and bandmate. Played as a wealthy, sophisticated, much-married woman of the world, McLeod’s takes and facial expressions when confronted with some of the more rustic elements in Donna’s milieu are priceless.
Michael Hunsaker is strong as Sam, one of Donna’s ex-suitors who could be Sophie’s father. His performance touches all that is alluded to in Johnson’s book and helps give texture to the entire production.
Michael Dean Morgan, reliable whether acting or directing, finds the comedy in the staid suitor, Harry. Peter Saide is manly and blustery as the third potential father, Bill.
Interesting in this production, Bill does not create the intensity with Donna that Sam and Harry do. This aloofness works. It adds variety and explains why Bill may be open to someone other than Donna.
Julius Williams, in addition to being built like an Adonis, is fun as the bartender, Pepper. Alec Cohen’s Eddie is a good sidekick to Pepper and Sky.
Mamma Mia! Bucks County Playhouse, 70 South Main Street, New Hope, Pennsylvania. Through Saturday, August 3. $65 to $85. 215-862-2121 or www.bcptheater.org.