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Take a chance on PTC - ‘Mamma Mia!’

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Take a chance on PTC - ‘Mamma Mia!’ (photo courtesy PTC/© magnus stark, 2019)

BANGOR – There’s a whole lot of fun in the sun happening at the Bangor Opera House these days, a wealth of dreams and dancing queens.

Penobscot Theatre Company’s latest production – the final one of their 46th season – is the musical “Mamma Mia!” It’s a jukebox musical built on the tremendous catalog of 1970s Swedish pop supergroup ABBA, with book by Catherine Johnson. This production – directed and choreographed by Amiee Turner, with music direction by Phil Burns – runs through July 14 at the Bangor Opera House.

It’s the story of a young woman on the verge of getting married who is hoping to get a better sense of who she herself is by learning more about her history – specifically, who her father is, something her free-spirited and hard-working mother never told her. It’s about how powerful love can be … and what it means to allow yourself to feel it, no matter how much time may have passed.

It’s a lovely (albeit a tough thin) story, but the real highlights are the singing and the dancing – and as far as those are concerned, PTC’s production is pure dynamite. It is one of the biggest, brightest shows to grace this stage in some time, shiny and sweet and downright spectacular.

Sophie Sheridan (Stephanie Colavito) has returned to her childhood home on the small Greek island of Kalokairi to get married to her fiancé Sky (Tyler Ivey). Her mother Donna (Heather Astbury-Libby) has built an inn on the island and is playing host to the festivities. Sophie has invited her best friends Ali (Kate Fogg) and Lisa (Marianne Grossman) to be her bridesmaids, while Donna’s oldest friends (and former bandmates in the legendary girl group Donna and the Dynamos) have also made their way to the island – cynical multi-divorcee Tanya (Brianne Beck) and carefree cookbook author Rosie (Christie Robinson).

What Sophie really wants, however, is for her father to be at her wedding. The only problem? She doesn’t know who he is, and her mother has never told her. But when Sophie stumbles upon an old diary, she makes an unexpected discovery – there are three potential fathers out there.

So she invites all three … and all three turn up. There’s architect Sam Carmichael (Michael Padgett), banker Harry Bright (Frank Bachman) and travel writer Bill Austin (Dominick Varney). The men arrive, unsure of why they are there, only to have Donna shocked and appalled at their surprise arrival. Meanwhile, Sophie, who believed she’d know her father on sight, is only confused by the trio – each of them offers a degree of paternity potential.

As the wedding rapidly approaches, Sophie and Sky go through the various traditions – stag/hen parties and the like – while Donna attempts to prepare for the wedding while also sorting through unresolved feelings with regards to the three dads. Connections and reconnections begin to take place, as all the people involved are left to determine how they feel about one another and what that might mean going forward.

And through it all, love is very much in the air.

This production is an absolute delight, crackling with a relentlessly positive energy that is engaging and utterly infectious. Every member of the cast (a massive 23 strong) is practically glowing with a spirited joy; they could not more effectively convey the good time that they appear to be having. It is a show that simply refuses to accept that the audience might have anything other than a fantastic time.

Amiee Turner is the creative steward of this project, serving as both the director and choreographer of “Mamma Mia!” and excelling in both capacities. Jukebox musicals can be tricky in that they exist as song vehicles first; character often receives short shrift. This one is no different, but Turner does fine work in guiding her cast toward three-dimensionality, helping the cast find their own way to the depth necessary for us to truly empathize and connect.

As for the choreography, well … this is one of the grandest shows in terms of movement that we’ve seen on that stage in some time; heck, they put the band in the balcony to make room for them. The big dance numbers (of which there are a few) are all wonderful to watch, smooth and exciting and surprisingly complex, but the smaller, more intimate movements are impressive in their own right.

As are the individual performances.

First things first: Heather Astbury-Libby gives arguably the best performance in a PTC career filled with great ones. Her Donna is sweet and sharp in all the right ways, and the songs … oh, good God, the songs. From killer turns on “Dancing Queen” and “Super Trouper” to the beautiful back-to-back heartpunch of “Slipping Through My Fingers” and “The Winner Takes It All,” she is phenomenal. Meanwhile, Stephanie Colavito’s turn as Sophie holds strong alongside the Astbury-Libby powerhouse. There’s a lovely optimism to her performance that feels very genuine. Vocally, she shines brightest with “I Have a Dream,” which opens and closes the show, though she’s killer on “Lay All Your Love On Me” (which might be my favorite ABBA song).

Finding the right collection of dads for this show is probably tough; you need a group that functions well both individually and as a unit. Happily, this trio accomplishes just that. Padgett’s Sam exudes confidence and moves with an easy sensuality. Bachman’s Harry practically glows with goodness and good-natured charm. And Varney endows Bill with just the right amount of awkwardness. As for the Dynamos, Beck and Robinson both bring their A-game. Tanya’s sophisticated floozy vibe works perfectly in Beck’s hands, while Robinson’s gift for goofball physicality comes through to great effect in her turn as Rosie.

(Note: This is probably where I should note that the Robinson/Varney duet on “Take a Chance on Me” was one of my favorite moments in the entire show.)

But they’re hardly alone. It’s rare to say for an ensemble this big, but there don’t appear to be any weak links. Sky is a tough character to play – there’s not much there on the page – but Ivey does great work bringing him to life. Fogg and Grossman are clearly having fun as Sophie’s giggling besties. Robert Brangwynne’s Pepper nearly steals a couple of scenes with a surfeit of dork-bro energy.

The rest of the cast – Danielle Barrett, Eric Byers, Aidan Close, Brianna Demaso, Stephanie Erb, Ien Misler, Noam Osher, Zivi Osher, Bob Potts, Alex Ross, Birdie Sawyer and Michelle Weatherbee – serve as the production’s backbone, really bringing forward the living, breathing world of the play.

The band is – surprise, surprise – tight as hell. Led by music director Burns on keys, the group features Suz Eggert (also on keys), Phil Kell on guitar, Tom Libby on drums and Gaylen Smith on bass. Most of those names are familiar to regular attendees of PTC musicals and with good reason – they’re REALLY talented.

Oh, and in addition to great performances, the production values are sky high as well. Scenic designer Sean McClelland has transformed the stage, creating a set that is both aesthetically attractive and functionally flexible, brimming with bright colors and doors galore. Scout Hough’s lighting design alternately softens and emphasizes the visual palette. And Jimmy Johansmeyer’s costume design is simply spectacular; from island-casual looks to over-the-top sequin-and-spandex explosions, he nails it all. Sound designer Sean McGinley has once again tamed the notoriously finicky Opera House acoustics, while John Siedenberg’s prop design lends another welcome layer to the proceedings.

“Mamma Mia!” is everything you want a summer production to be. It is light and breezy, jammed with fantastic songs sung by fantastic performers. It has quiet intimacy and huge production numbers. It’s a show that will leave you humming and smiling long after the curtain call has come and gone (and it’s one outstanding curtain call, as far as that goes).

Thank you for the music, PTC.

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