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Theater Review: Mamma Mia!

Somewhere during the first act of “Mamma Mia!,” which just opened at the Historic Iao Theater, the audience began to lose their minds. Audibly and, in some cases, even physically, the theater goers reacted to the show in a wildly enthusiastic manner, akin to zoo animals freaking out over an elegantly coifed poodle walking past their cages. The scene in question is the ABBA love ballad (there’s a lot of those in this show) titled “Lay All Your Love On Me,” in which Sophie and Sky, the two lovers in question (played by the sunny, talented Julia Schwentor and the charming, game-for-anything Peter Webb), are joined by a Greek chorus of men in swimming attire. Director Kalani Whitford (whose approach to this production is best described in one word as “unleashed”) takes an already campy number and takes it to another level entirely. It is, indeed, a hilarious, unforgettable sequence and it comes early. There’s a few more before the first act is up and the second act is, likewise, stuffed with more entertainment value than a pinata filled with malt liquor. Have I mentioned yet how much fun this show is?

The plot? Don’t make me laugh. Here it is anyway: Donna (played by Lina Aiko Krueger) is planning the wedding for her daughter, Sophie, on a remote island. In addition to Donna’s lifelong best friends Tanya (played by Ellen Peterson) and Rosie (played by Marsi Smith) in attendance, there’s also the dapper Harry (played by Marc Tolliver), Sam (played by Scott Smith) and Bill (played by Dean Watt). The reason these three men have arrived: Sophie has always wondered who her father is and, by inviting her mother’s three former lovers to the event, she hopes to find out.

From the very beginning, we see how this material is in the right hands: Caro Walker’s amazing set (complete with a dock) allows for a stunning amount of open space, creating theater pictures and striking imagery throughout, as does Amy Lord’s skillful lighting. Vicki and Jessie Nelson’s costumes are, to put it bluntly, totally amazing, exploding with color and pizzazz.

Whitford is as gifted a director as he is an actor (which is saying an awful lot) and cleverly encourages his performers to find the emotional truths available to the characters but to also embrace their inner-ABBA. What does that mean? Since each scene is propelled by the music and lyrics of the world’s greatest, ever-harmonizing Swedish pop band (yes, kids, the 70’s were weird), the cast embraces the emotional and tonal demands of each number, whether it means vocal uplift or tapping into heartache. You could say this is a requirement for most Broadway blockbusters, though most musicals don’t offer their cast the challenge of having to not only invest heart and emotional authenticity to the likes of “Chiquitita” and “I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do,” but to compete with the audience’s lived in fondness with these heavy-on-radio-rotation show tunes. I’m a quasi, kinda-reluctant ABBA fan (more on that later), which is why this should come as high praise: this production totally works. There’s so much joy in this show.

Krueger is a real treasure, a performer who can breathe life into any character and connect to what is genuine and compelling at the core of the role. Playing Donna, I believed in the character’s delicious complications and found myself thinking about what a survivor she is (even the brilliant but impenetrable Meryl Streep didn’t allow me that before). Krueger is terrific. Playing Donna’s most loyal companions and, really, living embodiments or her id and barely contained inner longings, are Marsi Smith and Ellen Peterson, who are both fantastic. Watt is a real charmer and shares with Smith the scene that made me laugh the hardest- their horny-as-hell rendition of “Take A Chance On Me.” Peterson, in the same way, is killer funny performing “Does Your Mother Know.” Tolliver’s duet of “Our Last Summer” with Krueger is another highlight and a needed bit of real, grounded emotion in such a goofy-and-proud-of-it show (likewise, the welcome scenes of conversation where Krueger and Schwentor illuminate their character’s  mother/daughter relationship). Smith is stunning here, as he brings nuance to his role and is a wonderful singer.

The standout numbers are the title song, “Dancing Queen,” a thrilling rendition of “Super Trouper,” Krueger’s great take on “One of Us” (I’ll admit it, my favorite ABBA song- there, I said it. You happy, Dad?!), Smith’s excellent “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” and the moving “I Have a Dream” that Schwentor beautifully bookends the show with. The ensemble performers are exceptionally good at making this look and sound fabulous. Whitford’s brilliant choreography moves one musical number seamlessly into another, complete with brisk scene changes and demanding marks for the actors to hit. To put it another way, Whitford and his hard-working cast keep the party going.

How fitting and amusing that The Historic Iao Theater is concluding its current season with this guaranteed monster hit. It certainly is a sexier, bubblier, wilder, rowdier and naughtier production than their recent slate (lots more ass-slapping and groping than, say, “Elf The Musical”). It’s fun to watch the audience have as much fun as the artists on stage. This show had the audience begging for more early on and, on the way to my car afterwards, I heard several attendees wanting to go dancing. Is it any wonder that tickets for this production are suddenly harder to find than an ABBA cassette tape?

Mamma Mia! plays at The Historic Iao Theater until August 4th. Tickets are available at mauionstage.com or by calling 808-242-6969.

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About Barry Wurst II

Barry Wurst II
Barry Wurst II is a senior editor & film critic at MAUIWatch. He wrote film reviews for a local Maui publication and taught film classes at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs (UCCS). Wurst also co-hosted podcasts for Screengeeks.com and has been published in Bright Lights Film Journal and in other film-related websites. He is currently featured in the new MAUIWatch Podcast- The NERDWatch.

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