Here’s a review of MAMMA MIA by Howard W. Blake High School theater performance major Hannah Lehrer. #BHSReviews is an initiative of students reviewing local productions while encouraging their peers and classmates to support and attend more live theatre. In order to help shape the future of live theatre in Tampa Bay – American Stage offers free tickets to all of our mainstage shows to young people under the age of 20 through our UNDER 20 PASSPORT.
By: Hannah Lehrer
One of my fondest memories growing up was musical night with my mom. In an effort to expose me to the glamour and grandeur of the theater world, my mother would whisk me over to the local Blockbuster, scouring the new releases for our next musical endeavor. In the summer of 2008, we made our regular trip, unsuspecting of the most remarkable find in Blockbuster history. As I picked up a copy of Camelot, for the 20th time, my mother thrust a sparkling blue copy of a “little known” musical in my face. That was the start of my Mamma Mia fever. Sitting on the lawn of American Stage’s production of Mamma Mia, I was right back in my living room, eyes sparkling in utter wonderment.
To call this production captivating would be an understatement. Whether it was the fantastically cohesive cast, the spunky band on the side, or the beautifully crafted Grecian set, I was consumed by the world American Stage was able to create. For many, this is not an easy task, as I am both an avid fan of the Broadway musical and Meryl Streep’s beloved film. Regardless, any prior expectations I may have had were blown away with the St. Pete wind, as Michael Raabe hit the first chord in the overture.
Alison Burns gives an impeccable performance as the vivacious and dynamic Donna, leader of the Dynamos, and single mother of the bride-to-be. Executing every note with ease and spontaneity it was almost as if she was born to play this role. That being said, it was no surprise to hear the audience go wild, as she belted out the final money note of “The Winner Takes It All”. However, the same can be said for Jennifer Byrne and Becca Mccoy, playing Donna’s infamous best friends, backup vocalists, and comedic duo; Tanya and Rosie. Byrne’s portrayal of Tanya was the perfect combination of power and glamour, adding an extra salacious punch to her solo, “Does Your Mother Know?”. This provided a beautiful contrast between scene stealer Mccoy, whose comedic timing never failed to impress. Yet, I was pleasantly surprised in her ability to take Rosie (always characterized as the least ladylike of the group) and transform her into a confident and sexy role model to younger audience members. On their own, each woman gave a compelling performance, but together, they were unstoppable.
The company of MAMMA MIA. Photo by Beth Reynolds.
I had the privilege of seeing Julia Rifino’s performance in Avenue Q a year or two ago, and naturally, I fell in love with her. Her charismatic nature as a performer is conveyed in everything she does, this being especially present in her portrayal of Sophie. She’s stunning, fresh, and vibrant; warming the hearts of every audience member as she sings “I Have a Dream” and “Under Attack”. Her chemistry with co-star, Cameron Hale Elliot (Sky) is unparalleled as they charm us all with their steamy rendition of “Lay All Your Love on Me”. Hale’s boyish charm and swoon-worthy smile is a perfect match for Rifino in every possible way.
As for the famous “Mystery Dads”, I couldn’t have been more pleased with the casting of Sam, Bill, and Harry. Jim Sorensen’s vocals are killer as he belts out every note in “Knowing Me, Knowing You” with ease and sincerity. Larry Alexander is the perfect Harry, adding a whimsical flourish to the trio of men. On the same note, Armando Acevedo plays a sweet and jovial Bill, a perfect match to Mccoy’s Rosie; a bit of a spoiler if you haven’t seen the show. Together they provide all sorts of witty dialogue and memorable moments onstage, my favorite being the quartet in “Thank You for the Music”, in which they get to meet Sophie for the first time.
If I have learned anything from my experience in the theater world, no matter how great the leads are, a musical means nothing without a fierce ensemble. Renata Eastlick and her fellow ensemble dancers made sure the audience kept this in mind, as their choreography was performed with perfection. Every move had life and purpose; every pose was perfectly selected. That ensemble came to work and deliver, and they did exactly that. Eastlick was especially precise and awake in the moment. I always knew where she was on stage, as I found myself continuously drawn to her exuberant energy. It was all I could have asked for and more.
The company of MAMMA MIA. Photo by Beth Reynolds.
Of course, none of this would have been possible without Stephanie Gularte’s fabulous direction. Mamma Mia has a wide range of songs and potentially confusing side plot lines, but Gularte cultivated a performance that powered through, keeping energy high. Jerid Fox’s sets are gorgeous and remind me so much of the architecture in the 2008 film I hold so dear. Between the stunning archways and the brilliant incorporation of the band onto the set, I truly felt immersed in the show itself. This also goes hand in hand with the Park atmosphere which is so perfectly married to a show like Mamma Mia. Mike wood’s lighting design gives the production that extra push, as it plays more like an outdoor concert and conveys the heightened energy behind the Dynamos reuniting to sing at Sophie’s bachelorette party. Shain Stroff’s choreography is daring in songs “Gimme, Gimme, Gimme!” and “Voulez-Vous”, creating fabulous pictures for the audience.
Much like the ensemble comment, a musical is nothing without a stellar band and a fantastic musical director. Michael Raabe keeps his band tight, always delivering each song with their own special flare. Watching Raabe and Jeremy D. Silverman on the keys is just about as fun as watching the production itself. They are completely in it; jamming out to every group number and solo. With Paul Stoddart on guitar, Joe Grady on bass, and Burt Rushing on drums, it’s truly the dream team.
American Stage’s Mamma Mia has proven to be my favorite park production yet. I encourage everyone, old and young to join the party and experience this lively celebration of pop music and fun. If you are not a fan of Mamma Mia now, I assure you that will not be the case for long. So, go out, grab your fellow dancing queens, and head over to Mamma Mia! for a night you will remember long after you are “young, sweet” and “only seventeen.”
Don’t miss MAMMA MIA running through May 12! Tickets and info at americanstage.org/PARK