Mamma Mia at UCONN”s Connecticut Repertory Theatre does not need this review. If you are near Storrs, Connecticut this June and are looking for a night of carefree musical theatre, you will be at the Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre. As a bonus, you will be treated to a cast that is saturated with exuberant talent in a dreamily designed production that hums with fantasy, fairytales, and fun.
We are talking about the music of ABBA--boisterous, infectious, ubiquitous ABBA--that you belt out at karaoke, in the shower, and in your car. Of course you will “leave singing the songs;” you’ve been singing them for forty years. We are additionally talking about a bright and beachy Greece setting just bursting with warmth and passion, despite there being hardly any actual Greekness in it, save for the occasional ouzo shot or mystical yiayia shuffling through the scenes. And still, the gorgeous set and light design will transport you to the dream. Most importantly, we are talking about powerhouse voices, dynamic dancing, and joy for two and a half hours. A twenty-one person cast from Broadway, regional theatre, and UCONN students, this show is here for you.
With music and lyrics by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, some songs by Stig Anderson, and conceived by Judy Craymer, director Terrence Mann…
Oh wait, I’m sorry. Was I about to cruise on through an introductory paragraph without noting that this firecracker of a production is directed by Terrence Mann, Broadway’s originator of Beast in Beauty and the Beast, Rum Tum Tugger in Cats, and Javert in Les Les Misérables, and who continues to play contemporary Broadway in the original casts of The Addams Family, Tuck Everlasting, and the Tony-award winning revival of Pippin? Forgive me. This will not be the first time in this review where I gush over the larger-than-life theatrical talent that is tucked away at UCONN this summer for the CRT’s Nutmeg Summer Series (which will also include Cabaret, featuring Laura Michelle Kelly who originated the role of Sylvia in the musical Finding Neverland). Settle in.
Mann brings his astute stagecrafting to this cast with focused charisma. Every actor on the stage has a natural character arc that sparkles throughout the production. The plot is irrelevant. The people are the story. The story is the music, and the music is ecstatic.
If you are looking for alto songs to add to your musical theatre repertoire book, you may already have the first act of Mamma Mia in the front. As a mezzo-soprano, however, you may not love scraping the bottom of your voice for the notes in songs like “Money, Money, Money” and “Super Trouper.” Still, if you are looking for the song that will get you the gig, take notes from Jessica Hendy as Donna, whose “The Winner Takes it All” is worth the price of the ticket.
Donna and her two best friends (AKA: Donna and the Dynamos) will solidify your decision that you chose the right show to see this summer. Hendy’s credits also include Cats, being in both the original Broadway run as well as the 2017 revival cast. She is joined by powerhouse Jennifer Cody as Rosie, known to Disney nerds as the voice of Charlotte La Boeff in The Princess and the Frog, and to Broadway theatre geeks as any of your favorite characters in Shrek, Grease, and Urinetown. Her comedic timing is artful, and she lights up the stage whenever she ka-blams onto it, particularly in her duet with Jamie Colburn’s Bill in “Take a Chance on Me.” Lauren Blackman as Tanya brings the triad to perfect chordal harmony, as the trio’s “Chiquita,” particularly a cappella, is exquisite. She has style, grace, and gives rich face, as well as serious vocal prowess in “Does Your Mother Know?”
This story includes, of course, the ingenue and her peers, navigating this fantasy of 1990s silliness and pseudo-drama with adorable authenticity. As Sophie, Kelly McCarty performs some surprisingly heavy vocal lifting, having to act a plot through at least eight pop hits. She especially shines as we first meet her in “I Had a Dream” (spell-check your programs, CRT) and in a deliriously sexy “Lay All Your Love On Me” with Mason Reeves’ delightfully earnest Sky, despite the curse of body mics descending upon him and rendering some of his voice in the song inaudible. One day, there will be a truce between rock musical orchestras and vocal microphones. This was not that day.
Speaking of that song, this show is downright crowded with incredible dancers, and the tap number for this one is spectacular. Bouquets of gratitude for choreographers Mary Ann Lamb and Jessica Walker. “Voulez Vous” manages to be a carnival of movement, highlighting flexibility and precision. Spotlight on Shae Coughlin for representing women friends of the groom in the bachelor party. This gives the show added opportunity to represent same sex relationships in the dance stories. Happy Pride!
This show is otherwise structured with gender symmetry, and in groups of three. Sophie’s friends Ali (Torie D’Alessandro) and Lisa (Helen Shen) have their butterfly hair clipped, sleepover moment in “Honey, Honey” while Sky’s buddies Pepper (RJ Higton) and Eddie (Mike Katz) bro out all over the chorus numbers. For Donna and the Dynamos counterparts, we meet Sophie’s three potential fathers (like I said, don’t worry about the plot). Colburn’s Bill and Rob Barnes’ Harry are obviously not old enough to be Sophie’s father in reality, but their performances are affable and strong. It is Bradley Dean’s Sam who has the experience and vocal chops to solidly match Hendy, with recent credits from jukebox rock musicals Bat Out of Hell (the music of Meatloaf) and Chess (more Andersson and Ulvaeus), in addition to King Kong on Broadway.
Suspend any pretense of Mamma Mia having lingering gravitas and substance. This is pure kaprítsio, complete with a gorgeous nightmare ballet, granny witchery, instant weddings, and candles that can wave over heads without dripping. Incredible! Come to escape the actual heat, or take a breather from life’s stressors. Dance in the aisles, sing along during company bows, appreciate how a production can work so seriously hard to create something so cheerfully light, and know that with a bit of rock music, everything is fine.
Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s Mamma Mia! runs at the Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre on the campus of the University of Connecticut in Storrs, CT through June 22, 2019. For ticket information or to purchase tickets by phone, call 860-486-2113. To purchase tickets online, visit www.crt.uconn.edu.