Mamma Mia! at Albany Civic Theater

Disclaimer: I didn’t care for the movie. I really like ABBA’s music; but the story, when you really take a look at it, is not one to celebrate, is it? I saw the show at ACT because I know some of the cast and want to support them and community theatre. I tried to keep an open mind about the stage version because, well, you never know. Sometimes the stage version is better than the movie or vice versa. Here’s my review.

A Synopsis

Molly Duddlesten plays Sophie Sheridan, the 20 year old gal who happens to be getting married the next day. What her mother Donna, played by Carri Moffatt, doesn’t know is Sophie has invited three men to the wedding from her mother’s past. One of them is her father, but which one?! Donna has been working her butt off creating this Greek Isle getaway for vacationers while raising her daughter on her own. Instead of being happy for her daughter for finding love and wanting to get married, she reminisces about why she never married and how it shouldn’t be what women strive for. She doesn’t need a man, except for sex, and neither should her daughter. She raised Sophie to be strong and independent, didn’t she? But she loves her daughter and agrees to this lavish yet intimate wedding. Sophie reads her mother’s diary, figures out the names of her three potential fathers, and invites them to her wedding to figure out which one she’ll want to walk her down the aisle. All without her mother knowing. Until, of course, the three men run into Donna. *No matter what her mom has done for the last 20 years, she still wants a dad to give her away. Could it be because her mom was so secretive about her conception?*

Here’s What I Thought

ACT always does a great job decorating the entry and auditorium to reflect the theme for a production and this show was no exception. The story is set on a Greek isle and the auditorium certainly gave the impression the audience was not just observing the stage but was part of the show. The set, built by Alex Phipps and assistants, was simple with steps and platforms to give height for the ensemble and to provide easy scene changes. Upstage projection was used very well to convey indoor and outdoor scenes and ran very smoothly. *Being a tech girl, often what happens in the booth is much more chaotic and techies strive to do their best for a seamless show.* I didn’t notice anything weird, so I give props to projection master Kaitlyn Kastet for handling it. Light design, provided by Loriann Schmidt, was thoughtful and made sense throughout the show. The cast was healthy looking and there weren’t any distracting shadows. *I’ve designed lights for big shows and those nooks and crannies can be a pain at times.* I was confused; however, toward the end of “Slipping Through My Fingers” when Sophie has on her dress standing stage right with a full special, while Donna sits at her vanity singing the end of the song in the dark. Lighting mishap or designed that way? I don’t know but Donna stayed in the dark so…but let’s get back to the beginning.

I was pleasantly hopeful. Then it began. The music started and sounded like it was trapped backstage somehow sounding muffled. *This was my first musical at ACT, so I thought the band was backstage until I saw the pit opening at intermission.* This was distracting because the mic’d vocals were louder than the band while the un-mic’d vocals were more blended. It was also true when the ensemble sang from backstage. The ensemble blended with the muffled sound of the band while the mic’d singers were louder than everyone else. A technical issue of either not having a proper sound system or just speakers in the back of the auditorium for that matter.

Hilarity ensues. Except that it doesn’t. There isn’t anything hilarious about this show except for some sexual innuendo and silly jokes. I suppose the cotton candy disco-esque music from ABBA could have made this show more “fun” except the lyrics aren’t funny either. What this show needs is a lot more energy to bring the audience with it and forget that it doesn’t really make sense. Except the cast didn’t bring the energy. Even with a 31 person ensemble, way too many for ACT’s small stage, Choreographers Megan Skinner and Katie Lancaster do their best to make the dance sequences smooth and fun. However, a lot of it gets lost with all the bodies vying for their space. Maybe if half the ensemble took turns being back stage vocal support and the other half as onstage presence, it would have allowed the cast to move more freely. Also, early in the show, many of the ensemble were so distracting with their antics, I missed what was happening with the main characters. A no-no for background actors.

The Stars Of The Show Didn’t Shine

Oh tangents….Carri Moffatt does the best she can portraying Donna. There are few bright spots which is strange because her daughter is getting married and even though she doesn’t know the past is coming back to haunt her, she doesn’t seem to be a very happy person. For most of the show, she appears to be either bored or angry except for the scenes with Lance Duddlesten who plays Bill Austin, one of suitors from her past. Even in the scenes with the Dynamos, her cast mates Meghan Duddlesten, playing Rosie, and Tamara Merry, playing Tanya, steal every moment as they seem to be fully vested in their roles and enjoying every minute. Carri’s big moment comes with “The Winner Takes It All”. A chance to really shine vocally and give the audience what they came for. Except, she sounded held back like she couldn’t or wasn’t allowed to really belt it or show depth of emotion. Too bad. She’s vocally talented enough to bring us into her world with this song but it fell short and the look on her face while performing told me she knew it too.

Molly Duddlesten as Sophie does a great job being completely oblivious to reality and stuck in her narrow Greek Isle world. She didn’t learn a thing about love being raised by a hard working single mother except that you can be in it one minute ready to devote your life to someone and then decide at the last minute that having a dad didn’t really matter that much and neither does getting married… so, let’s just run off into the sunset and travel and ya know, live! Sophie is engaged to Sky, a Greek native, played by Noah Vanderburgh. Noah was spectacular as the lead character Frank in Catch Me If You Can last fall at The Majestic Theater. This role doesn’t give him much to work with. He’s cute and looks good in a dress; but the emotional connection between the Sky and Sophie isn’t there. They can be lovey-dovey alright but when the story calls for an argument when he finds out Sophie invited her three dads, it falls flat and looks forced. A moment for depth lost.

Ray Phipps is Sam, potential dad number one, who has some real vocal chops. You won’t know in Act 1, but he definitely gets his chance to show what he’s capable in Act 2 with “Knowing Me, Knowing You”. I was so happy to hear him sing this. It was full of emotion, regret, and hopefulness. He’s a little stiff with some of the blocking and dialogue in other parts of the show but makes up for tenfold with this vocal performance. Lance Duddlesten is Bill, potential dad number two. Bill is the one I thought Donna would end up with or the most likely candidate of being the father because he seemed so middle of the road. Not too out there like, Harry the rocker, and not too traditional like Sam was portrayed. Lance does a great job playing the middle road with his self-proclaimed bachelor forever mentality only to give in to Rosie’s advances at the end. *Sorry if I have spoiled anything. I figured most people have either seen the movie by now or the stage version, so I’m not really giving anything away.” Adam Vester is Harr, the guitar slinging rock n’ roller from the past and potential dad number three, who ends up revealing Donna was his first and last lady as he is happily partnered with a man back in the states. Adam seems to be having a good time in his scenes playing up the rocker persona.

As for the ensemble and supporting players, each had a moment but not very deep. Much of the ensemble was distracting from the sheer number of them and that they weren’t really present in some of the scenes. For example, the party goers in the night before the wedding party seemed bored when they should have seemed happy to be there. I mean, it’s a party after all. Even during the Dynamos performing, the ensemble stilled looked like they were waiting for the next cure instead of enjoying the show they were in. *Maybe I’m weird but I watch EVERYONE on the stage not just the people speaking.* The audience did like the dance sequence with the men wearing scuba flippers on their feet. It was clever, in the beginning, until the stomping sound drowned out the music and vocals. But hey, as long as the audience likes it. *And, upon research about other productions of this show, this flipper tap dancing thing is pretty common.*

Costumes were fantastic! Everyone looked like a Greek vacation and cohesive which can be a daunting task with a cast this size. All sizes were represented here with tasteful and flattering costumes. Some of the pieces were of darker colors which I found to be interesting since I think it’s summer and it’s an island which lends more to white, creams, and lighter brighter colors, but overall, people looked great. I especially liked Sophie’s wedding dress and the the disco costumes. The wedding dress was perfectly simple with a bit of embellishment which matched Sophie’s personality and upbringing. I would’ve liked to get a closer glimpse of the dress. Just to admire it. It looks so good on stage and from a distance. I was in row M and it stood out so delicately. The disco costumes were so much fun! How I long to be in a disco cover band…but that’s another story. Shout out to the costume crew Sarah Roth, Anya Corbitt, Melody Murphy, and Carson Davis. Great job!

I was pretty happy when the show appeared to come to an end. Although, the plot point for the end felt forced like, “We have to give the audience some sort of happy ending! I know! We’ll have Donna get back together with Sam! Everyone will be happy then.” Gross. It’s okay to not have a happy ending. I thought the point of Sophie realizing she didn’t have to be married to be happy and live her life with her forever boyfriend was good enough and what the writer of the show ultimately wanted the audience to take away. “You don’t need a piece of paper to live your life and be happy with the one you love.” But, I imagine at some preview back in the day when the powers that be were work-shopping this show, someone said, “I don’t like the ending. I want Donna to be happy, too”. Okay. So know we have two endings.

But then the bows and encore happened. Being a longtime theatre goer as well as performer, writer, director, and every thing else theatre, I clapped enthusiastically for the effort given by the cast as each group made their way up front to take their moment. The audience; however, did not keep up. Mind you, I attended the second night and it was almost sold out. By the time the third round of ensemble hit the stage for bows, maybe a third of us were still clapping. When the main characters started showing up, the clapping hit it’s second wind and came back to life. I was ready to stand up and greet the cast in the lobby but found myself trapped in my seat as the cast broke out into three encore songs. The encore songs, by the way, were the most energetic I saw the cast. Maybe they were happy to have made through without a hitch? I know the anxiety of opening weekend and all the hard work which goes into bringing a show to life. It’s a relief when you finally have an audience. With the ensemble positioned up each aisle and me in my aisle seat, I could not sneak out. Then, when I made eye-contact with a couple of ensemble people I know, I had to stand and “dance” along. *Looking into the show, the extra long bows and encore songs are written in to do them. As a director, I wouldn’t have done it this way. But that’s me.

All in all, if you like ABBA, you’ll like the music. The band does a great job playing the music; although, the tempo could’ve a been a snitch faster. *I could be wrong about that. Just a feeling I have.* If you like a fluff story as long as it looks like people are having fun and there is a semblance of a happy ending, you’ll like this show. Mamma Mia isn’t in my top favorite list of musicals, but for many others, it’s one of the best shows they’ve seen.

Directed by Christi E. Sears, Mamma Mia! continues at ACT through October 12th, 2019. For tickets and showtimes, click here to be directed to ACT website. Enjoy the show, if you decide to go ๐Ÿ™‚ *Also, don’t watch the trailer with sound on. It doesn’t properly reflect the singing talent in the show. They are much better in person. ๐Ÿ™‚

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