The Beach is Open at the Center for Performing Arts with MAMMA MIA!

Review By Joe Eriole

Up In One Productions’ presentation of the wildly popular sensation, Mamma Mia!, began its four week run at the Center for Performing Arts in Rhinebeck to a packed and enthusiastic house. With music and lyrics by Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Anderson and book by Catherine Johnson, the iconic and irresistible ABBA songbook tells the story of Sophie, a young woman searching for her birth father. Sophie has obtained a few leads by peeking at her mother’s diary from 21 years ago. The impetus to seek out her father is her impending wedding. The play opens on (and never leaves) the idyllic Greek island where the wedding will take place, and where the three potential dads met and courted Sophie’s mother, Donna, two decades earlier. Each of them moved on from the fling all those years ago, but Donna stayed, hoping to transform the island into a resort, and making it a home for her and Sophie. Donna has never told any of the men that they may be Sophie’s father, and indeed, she does not know herself which of the three it might be.

To say that the script strains credulity here and there is to put it charitably; the likelihood that the three potential dads, or Donna, would need Two Acts (or two hours), to put two-and-two together is clearly a stretch. But, in weaving the story using the lyrics of these incredibly appealing songs, which were not originally written to be linked together, were released generations ago, and in some cases, decades apart, is actually a happy and effective achievement. The soundtrack of the show is a delight.   

This production makes an impression before the first word is spoken, or the first note sung. The set of the Greek Island Taverna is lovely, and in the Center’s space, where the audience enters the house by crossing onto the stage, the beach setting is particularly inviting. As designed by Will Cornell and Keli Syder, and with Ms. Snyder as the Scenic Artist, the set is a star of the show in its own right.

Directed and choreographed by Kevin Archambault, the production manages to present sharply coordinated performances of the large company numbers which are reminiscent of those put on the much larger London and Broadway stages where the show was brought to life, despite the Center’s more intimate stage space. The live pit orchestra, perched high above the Taverna the entire show, is led through the lively and challenging score by veteran helmsman Matt Woolever.

Rachel Karasay gives us a Sophie we root for; a delightful characterization who we have no doubt is the great achievement of her mother’s life, the great love of her fiancee, and the apple of her many fathers’ eyes. Amy LeBlanc as Donna is believable in her struggles to keep the dream of the Taverna alive while navigating the challenges of single motherhood, and wonderfully resistant to the sudden appearance of her former paramours. Ms. LeBlanc also does justice to the show’s two most moving songs, Slipping Through My Fingers and The Winner Takes it All.

Donna’s two best friends, Rosie and Tanya (Victoria Howland and Emily Woolever, respectively) are the life of this party. Their performance of Chiquita introduces their combined talents to the audience with joyful exuberance. Woolever gives a performance clearly conveying that Tanya is more than the the objects of her desire can handle, but always plays as a true friend to the beleaguered Donna.  

Howland is a familiar face to Rhinebeck Theater-goers, and here she gives a performance so engaging that one is drawn to her no matter where she is on stage. A gifted comic actor with tremendous vocal range (notable here, where much of the music is in deceptively challenging keys), Howland is a gem in this role.

Like Donna, the newlyweds-to-be have their best friends for moral support. Jordan Stroly as Lisa and Michelle Moughan as Ali, play their roles with all the authentic enthusiasm of true friends and excited bridesmaids and are called upon in the score to add depth to various signature songs  which they each do beautifully. Likewise, Sky’s bachelor buddies, (Dennis Wakeman as the indomitable Pepper, in a scene not to be missed with Woolever and Tom Bunker as the happily recalcitrant Eddie) are comically supportive of the goings-on.

The men of Mamma Mia! are brought to life in this production by a cast of actors who lean into their roles with the happy wit required of them in this island paradise. As Sophie’s betrothed, Sky, P.J. Kraus is charmingly in love. The multi-national trio of Donna’s former suitors are played by Chris Gilbert, as Bill, who is playfully ensnared by one of Donna’s two friends (no spoiler here!), Kevin McCarthy sweetly playing Harry, a former headbanger who has settled down a bit and has a secret, and Rik Lopes, who plays the most serious present threat to win Donna’s heart, Sam, with a humor and empathy which makes it clear why he’s got a chance.   

A lot is asked of the large ensemble in this show, who fill the stage in numerous crowd-pleasing moments throughout this show, including a show-ending crowd-participation segment that will send the audience home with a memory of a beach resort somehow tucked into a theater in Rhinebeck, and the soundtrack of this joyful show in their heads for a long time after the lights come up.

The show runs through August 18. Tickets are available by phone at the Box Office at Box Office: (845) 876-3080, at the door (although advance ticket purchase is strongly encouraged), and online at  https://www.centerforperformingarts.org/all-shows-sp-1131460608/item/mamma-mia

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