“Are there any ‘Dancing Queens’ out there?” Producer Tom McCoy elatedly asked the amped-up “First Nighters” once again as “The La Mirada Theatre For The Performing Arts” in La Mirada California, in association with “McCoy-Rigby Entertainment”, welcomed them all back IN to their first full-cast live on-stage musical in over a year, with the blockbuster hit, “Mamma Mia”! Featuring a book by Catherine Johnson, based on a concept by Judy Craymer, the story is built on and around the music of Swedish Superstar Pop Group ABBA boasting a virtual hit-parade of songs by the group’s members Benny Anderson and Björn Ulvaeus, with additional lyrics by Stig Anderson. This new production is directed by T.J. Dawson with Choreography by Dana Solimando, who each have seen to it that the harmonic happenings are given a brighter, fresher, and newer “look” with even higher spirits and a multitude of feel-good sensations that are sure to have you dancing in the aisles! In fact, it is no exaggeration to assert that this may very well be the most amazing rendering of this proven musical gem you’re likely to see!
By now the plot is known and adored by fans of musical theater and mega-hit films the world over, who made “Mamma Mia” not merely ‘well-received’, but a bona-fide theatrical phenomenon: On the eve of her wedding on the idyllic Greek island of “Kalokairi”, Bride-to-be “Sophie Sheridan”, a twenty-year-old young woman in hopes of discovering the identity of her father, invites three men from her mother, “Donna’s” “Disco Diva” past. In classic farcical style, trouble arises when they arrive and she has to keep them (and the true reason they’re there) from “Donna” and her old backup singers, “Tanya” and “Rosie” (who are also guests at the impending nuptials.) Perhaps one of the cleverest aspects about this specific musical is how that there’s always one superb song after another just waiting to pop out around every corner. And oh, what songs they are! Containing over twenty of the Swedish Super Groups’ best-loved songs, including hits like “Dancing Queen”, “The Winner Takes It All”, “Thank You For The Music”, “Take a Chance on Me,” and the boisterous title number, still another great thing about the way the show is constructed lies in how it affords just about every protagonist their time in front of the footlights.
Mr. Dawson’s perceptive direction mines maximum humor out of what, in lesser hands, could easily dissolve into an over-emotive melodrama. (The sequence leading into “Dancing Queen” that sees “Donna” literally ‘wrapped-up by her emotions is worth the cost of admission itself!) He’s also magnificently ‘streamlined’ the entire production so that, while it’s fairly fast paced already, nothing is overlooked or short-shrifted. He also seems to have insightfully shifted the primary focus away from “Donna” and her reunion with her former singing group “The Dynamos” (along with her unexpected encounter with her three former lovers—each of whom might be her daughter’s dad,) and onto “Sophie” herself. After all, her wedding is the impetus for all of the action and it’s she who drives all of the ensuing happenings. Another riveting aspect to Dawson’s directorial ‘modus operandi’ is the refreshing way he enlivens the ensemble with very distinct “characters” peopling his background and big ‘group numbers”. They may not explicitly draw the main focus, but many do stand out in their own diverse and peculiar ways, making for a more thorough, ‘three-dimensional’ (and thus way more enjoyable) production. Likewise, Ms. Solimando’s contemporary choreography is at times complex, always electrifying, and also loaded with its share of ingenuity—making expert use of her dancers’ individual gyrations and isolations which translates into hyper-kinetic stage-pictures overflowing with youth, vitality, and exuberance. Interesting too, is that she frequently utilizes “The Pony”—a popular dance step amongst the younger set back in the 1960’s which, when its employed herein, brings about an excellent ‘lively’ effect (–and that’s not even mentioning the acrobatic maneuvers she suffuses into several particularly buoyant dance breaks!) Take for instance, show’s preliminary “all-out” company endeavor “Money, Money, Money (It’s A Richman’s World)” which exudes a thrilling ‘heightened energy’ throughout. “Voulez-Vous” is yet another rollicking ensemble endeavor, which she’s staged as a rhythmical round-de-lay in which the writhing, gyrating dancers change partners practically by the minute. It’s a gloriously glittery way to bring the first act to completion. She also enhances the impact of “Our Last Summer” by sliding in a sweet little waltz between “Donna” and “Harry” as they recall their brief but once-treasured romance twenty years earlier. Then, everything culminates in a splashy, rollicking—and fully choreographed–finale/curtain call, for which opening night attendees couldn’t rise to their feet fast enough to applaud and celebrate!
Marie-France Arcilla is an amiable and believable presence as “Donna Sheridan”. While her voice is more comparable to the likes of such by-gone “Top 40” singers as Karen Carpenter or Cass Elliot, than that of an honest-to-goodness “Disco Diva”, she exhibits an entrancing “Folk Rock” quality in the titular chanson. Later, she shines as the center of “Super Trouper” giving us a crisp, clean—and strong–delivery, making this one a definite show highlight. Just as incredible is that “Donna” addresses this song (about how love can conquer loneliness and mundanity,) directly to “Sophie”, whose momentous night the song is being performed for. However, her choicest moment arguably may have been with the touching “Slipping Through My Fingers”, as our Heroine helps her daughter prepare for the wedding ceremony. On opening night sound troubles caused Ms. Arcilla to rely on stage mics until after the song (at which point she was given a temporary hand mic;) but this was, ironically, a very happy accident. It caused those all through the auditorium to be fundamentally ‘drawn in’ to her performance at this bittersweet, nostalgic juncture, making the lyrics all the more compelling. Shortly prior, “S.O.S.”, which “Donna” shares with erstwhile ‘paramour’ “Sam”, is also one of the show’s “power duets” (there are several) which is also one of Arcilla’s more powerful moments as well. As “Sophie Sheridan”, Gabriella Carrillo too, possesses a terrific relaxed, natural quality with her acting and singing. This really is her story, and she brilliantly makes the most of it, infusing a laudable relatability into her numerous numbers starting straight off with her “full-on” introductory descant, “Honey, Honey”. Her overall ‘take’ has “Sophie’ as far more self-assured and less manipulative as has been seen in previous interpretations, and the modification is equal parts invigorating and delightful. Ms. Carrillo also distinguishes herself when also adding a pleasant “down-home” tinge to “Thank You For The Music”, while her lyrical ministration of “The Name Of The Game” validates that this score positively is a perfect fit for her splendid vocal talents. Were more proof of this needed, her Second Act curtain raiser, “Under Attack” (re-envisioned on this occasion to comprise “Sophie’s” actual ‘nightmare’ as opposed to a recollection of it upon being startled awake,) is a frenetic and fun way to welcome us back after the break. At the story’s conclusion, she sings a lovely full-versed ‘reprise’ of “I Have A Dream” (–and they just don’t come any better than this!)
Meanwhile, supplying their share of mirth and music, are “Donna’s” bandmates “The Dynamos”: “Rosie” and “Tanya”. As “Rosie”, Candi Milo may be kept more in the background for much of Act One (aside from a few initial sight gags,) but just wait! Post intermission, she furnishes some absolute comic gold in the eleventh hour—including in the midst of her spotlight number “Take A Chance On Me”, all of which are sincerely worth the wait! Joining her as “Tanya”, is Emily King Brown who gives us a much more benign and (dare we say it?) ‘Mature’ woman whose numerous acerbic little quips are nothing compared to the warmth and humorous reassurance she provides to those around her (to say nothing of this entire production at large!) Not so much a man-crazed tigress, she gives us a real, genuine woman with a zest for life—and one we’d all prize as a friend. When “Donna And The Dynamos” start singing together (as with “Chiquitita”,) they let their collective vocal prowess be unequivocally felt, essentially enriching this otherwise ‘simple’ interlude into showstopper status. Immediately after, the trio follow this up with the overtly jubilant, “Dancing Queen”.
And then there are the men in “Donna’s” life, starting with “Sam Carmichael”, played by Eric Kunze, his “Sam” is what we’d dream that cute boy-next-door or whom we remember from Highschool would look like once he morphs into an active and energetic (if more weathered,) full-grown adult male! Even better, Kunze’s vocal prowess is every bit as dynamic. Indeed, judging from the enthusiastic reaction from opening night’s audience, his second act dazzler, “Knowing Me, Knowing You” is, (succinctly put,) fast, fiery, and fantastic all-around, as was his contribution to the “S.O.S.” duet, opposite Ms. Arcilla. Danny Bernardo also dispatches commendable support as the sweet-natured (albiet somewhat befuddled) Brit Businessman, “Harry Bright”. With a convincingly accurate English accent and likeable personality, he too brings a remarkable sincerity and authenticity to his role; though if anything, it would have been nice were he to reveal touches here and there, of his former “Head Banger” days when “Harry” dreamt of being the next “Sid Vicious” or “Iggy Pop”. Either way, he is the power behind one of the scores’ more stirring (not to mention, unforgettable,) intermezzos, the lush and lovely “Our Last Summer”. Not to be overlooked either is Michael Cavinder as the brash ‘World Traveler’, “Bill Austin”. (In the stage version, “Bill” is an Australian as opposed to the Swede played by Stellan Skarsgard in the uber-successful movie adaptation.) Cavinder gives us the fitting “big” persona this part requires, and he especially impresses with his parts in “The Name Of The Game”, and then again being on the receiving end of the sidesplitting ode to middle-aged desperation, “Take A Chance On Me.”
Moreover, as “Sophie’s” ‘intended’, “Sky”, Taubert Nadalini has a ripped, chiseled body and a fine singing ability appropriate to the more “Pop/Top 40” quality of the songs being sung. This becomes apparent during his “Lay All Your Love On Me”, which then blossoms into a sublime duet with Ms. Carrillo (–and she does a primo job holding up her part in this one too!) Rodrigo Varandas and Dillon Klena also make their resounding ‘marks’ as “Sky’s” Groom’s men and all-around buds, “Pepper” and “Eddie” respectively. Both are superior dancers doling out some exceptional moves (and each are themselves supremely easy on the eyes to boot!) So too, Varandas adeptly prevails when he takes Center-stage with Ms. Brown over the course of their more-lighthearted-than-licentious, “Does Your Mother Know That You’re Out?”
The intricate (and exotically decorated) Set Designs by Stephen Gifford favor a more “Casbah” motif, than a traditional “Greek/Mediterranean” look., but they are very effective—notably when illuminated by Jean Yves-Tessier’s vivacious lighting designs, which come complete with several deep and moody, light projections–such as those in “Sophies’ Dream” that launches Act Two, or the vast ‘Starry Night’ at the close of the show’s finale scene. Through his auspices, the luxurious Lamé costumes that are spied in such numbers as “Voulez-Vous”, “Gimme, Gimme, Gimmee…” and of course the joyfully unrestrained final “Epilogue Concert” sparkle even more! There’s also the soft purple lighting he bathes “Donna” and “Sophie” in as they sing “Slipping Through My Fingers”, thus adding subtle poignancy as the pair reflect back through the tinted haze of memory. As for Winfield Murdock’s colorful and stylish costume designs, each invoke extra brightness and luster to the goings-on—and in a few cases bestow the show with a few added surprises in their own right (such as Sophie’s nifty costume change at the end of “Lay All Your Love”, or in the thick of her ‘nightmare’ coming out of the Entr’Acte, which sees “Donna” done up as a surreal combination of “Maleficent” and “Morticia Addams”!)
Be prepared to be ‘having the time of your life’ seeing this outstanding new envisioning of this dyed-in-the-wool favorite! After “Previewing” on Friday, October 29th and Saturday afternoon, October 30th, “Mamma Mia” ‘officially’ opened on Saturday evening, October 30th where it is slated to run through Sunday, November 21st, 2021 at the “La Mirada Theatre For The Performing Arts”, located at 14900 La Mirada Blvd in La Mirada, California. Right before the house lights dimmed, McCoy similarly observed “Masks are ‘part of the game’ at this point” in his opening greeting, and as such, it’s important to note that “La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts” continues to follow the Los Angeles County and State Public Health guidelines, which requires Proof of Full Vaccination or a Negative Covid-19 Test (taken within 72 hours of the event) in order to enter any indoor event where attendance is expected at 1,000 or more (such as at “The La Mirada Theatre”.) Following this guidance for all performances, to enter the theatre, patrons are asked to bring a photo ID and proof of vaccination, (either their physical “vaccination card”, a picture of their “vaccination card”, or a digital vaccination record.) Furthermore, for this engagement Masks are required indoors regardless of vaccination status. Showtimes are Thursdays at 7:30 PM; Fridays at 8:00 PM with Saturdays at 2:00 PM and 8:00 PM and Sundays at 1:30 PM and 6:30 PM. There will be an Open-Captioned performance on Saturday, November 13th , at 2:00 PM, while “Talkbacks” with the cast and creative team will be held after the final curtain on Thursday, November 4th and Thursday, November 18th, 2021. Tickets may be purchased online at the “La Mirada Theatre’s” website, located at: www.lamiradatheatre.com, by visiting the “La Mirada Theatre” Box Office, Monday through Friday between the hours of 11:00 AM until 5:30 PM; Saturdays and Sundays 12 Noon until 4:00 PM; or by calling the La Mirada Theatre Box Office at (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310. (Group Discounts as well as Special Discounted-rate Student Tickets, are also available for this engagement.)
Production Stills By Jason Niedle, Courtesy Of Demand PR (www.demandpr.com) And McCoy-Rigby Entertainment; Special Thanks To David Elzer At Demand PR, Tom McCoy, Cathy Rigby, T.J. Dawson, Dana Solimando, Jarod Millsap & To The Cast & Crew Of “The La Mirada Theatre For The Performing Arts” & McCoy-Rigby Entertainment’s 2021 Production Of “Mamma Mia” For Making This Story Possible.