I had tickets to the national tour of “Mamma Mia!” two years ago, but I was not excited to go. The protagonist, an ultra-chipper 20-year-old girl, wants her father to walk her down the aisle, but doesn’t know who he is, so she invites the three men it might be without letting her mom know what she’s doing? What was this — “The Parent Trap” set to the cheesy songs of Swedish pop group ABBA?
But there is a reason why “Mamma Mia!” was the ninth-longest running show in Broadway history and one of only five musicals to have run for more than 10 years on the Great White Way. There is a reason why it has been seen by more than 54 million people in 38 productions in 14 languages in over 400 cities. And there is a reason why I was glad to see it again Friday night at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre: It is one of the most charming musicals ever to be put on stage.
On the Greek island of Kalokairi, Sophie is getting ready to marry her fiance, Sky. She has read her mother’s old diary and discovered that her mother, Donna, dated Sam, Bill and Harry all around the time Sophie was conceived. Sophie (who has never known the identity of her father) has coerced all three men to come to the island, hoping to discover which one is actually her dad. Of course, she didn’t tell the men why she was inviting them, and didn’t tell her mom that she was inviting them, so hilarity ensues — to a soundtrack of ABBA’s finest.
The Rep’s set designer for the show, James Youmans, whose credits include “To Kill a Mockingbird” at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and “West Side Story” on Broadway, perfectly pulls the audience into the Mediterranean spirit with a proscenium arch painted like dappled water, a blue-backlit scrim revealing tiny clay houses dotting a far-off horizon, and a thoughtfully constructed partial house complete with working fountain and flower vines cascading beneath a second-story veranda. Even the stage floor was painted to look like cobblestone. I’ve come to expect great sets from The Rep, and this one for “Mamma Mia!” absolutely fit the bill.
A successful production of “Mamma Mia!” does not happen without a strong choice for the young female lead, and here, too, The Rep nailed it. Sarah Daniels, a New York City-based actor and professional video gamer (yep, you read that right) who’s appeared as Elle Woods in “Legally Blonde” and Kate/Lucy in “Avenue Q” (one of my favorite musicals of all time), unquestionably shines as Sophie. Her voice is clear and lovely. Joyful, in fact. She is adorable and, just like “Mamma Mia!” itself, undeniably winning.
Another bright spot in the production: the dads. T.J Mannix, who played adventuring travel writer dad Bill Austin, was a charismatic bumbler who’d win anyone’s heart. Peter Simon Hilton, who played British banker Harry Bright, dazzled with his rocker-aging-into-stodgy-adult comedy. Sam Carmichael, played by Cooper Grodin (who played the title role in the New National Tour of “Phantom of the Opera”) matched The Rep’s Donna (Erin Mosher) note for spectacularly powered note.
A few of the dance numbers were outstanding. In “Lay All Your Love on Me,” the actors wear flippers and scuba masks and inner tubes as they cavort across the stage, even indulging in a kick-line at one point. It was one of the most well choreographed numbers in the play, and the chemistry between Sophie and Sky (played by Zane Phillips) sizzled. The other stand-out song, “Does Your Mother Know,” showcases the effervescence of actress April Nixon as Tanya (one of Donna’s friends) and the chemistry she has with Avery Royal (one of Sky’s compatriots) as Pepper.
A couple of elements of the show were lacking. The costumes were hit-or-miss. When Tanya enters for the first time, she laments, “Why did I wear these stilettos?” The Rep, though, is an intimate performance space, and the sturdy heels of her shoes were visible to all. And when all of the ladies are gathered for Sophie’s bachelorette party (to the tune of “Voulez-Vous”), they’re dressed in shredded leggings, sparkly crop tops and skirts cut into ribbons, outfits better suited to a dance recital than a night on the town. But, when the costumes hit, they go out of the park. Sophie’s wedding dress is striking, and the three dads come out dressed in Ziggy Stardust-meets-Elvis-inspired regalia for the curtain call performance of “Waterloo.”
Too, Erin Mosher as Donna lacked that certain something that really connects to audiences. Her vocals in “The Winner Takes It All” were astounding, her pitch is perfect and her powerful belt are practically unmatched, but she was just shy of wowing me with her acting, and the chemistry with her romantic lead (Grodin — as Sam, a bit stiffly) wasn’t quite there. Maybe I just happened to catch Mosher and Grodin on an off night, and as the show settles into its groove this pair will end up blowing everyone away. But luckily for The Rep, on opening night Sarah Daniels as young Sophie took over with great aplomb — delightful, magnetic and sweetly bewitching.
The Rep’s production of “Mamma Mia!” is a must-see. If you don’t believe me, ask the two middle-aged men I saw bumping hips in the lobby after the show. Something tells me they’d say the same.