Following an extended moratorium due to Covid-19, 5-Star Theatricals is back and better than ever with a wave-your-arms-in-the-air, crowd-pleasing production of the ABBA jukebox musical, “Mamma Mia!” Originally scheduled to open on March 27th, 2020, Director Richard Israel and company stayed patient for more than 18 months, waiting their turn to unveil a memorable show worth going out of your way to see. Having finally opened on Friday, October 15th, this second go-around with “Mamma Mia!” is zestful, indefatigable, and has no intention of being slowed down by extenuating circumstances. As long as attendees comply by showing proof of vaccination or a negative test within 72 hours of showtime, they can partake in this nostalgic reverie — suddenly made relevant again by ABBA’s resurgence given their announcement of the soon-to-be-released album, “Voyage,” and tour (as their digitally rendered, 1970’s avatars).
There is no doubt that the draw of “Mamma Mia!” is ABBA’s indelible music, composed by two of its members: Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus as well as lyricist/manager Stig Anderson. The renowned melodies, which sooth and rouse, have crossed generational divides and uplifted even the the most somber of dispositions. And, although Catherine Johnson’s book has its moments, it is clearly secondary to the tunes. The plot, which takes place on the fictional Greek island of Kalokairi, focuses on Donna Sheridan, a single mother, and her 20-year-old daughter Sophie, who have lived in a hotel on the island that Donna has run for 15 years. Sophie is to be married very soon to her fiancé, Sky. However, besieged by an early existential crisis surrounding the identity of her real dad, and the desire to be given away on her wedding day, Sophie uses her mother’s erstwhile diary to identify and invite three possible fathers: Harry Bright, Bill Austin, and Sam Carmichael. These three men are matched in number by Donna’s fun-loving friends and former bandmates, Tanya and Rosie.
The drama begins promisingly, though if you’re hoping for the central conflict regarding the identity of Sophie’s father to be resolved, you’ll be disappointed. Nonetheless, this is certainly not the fault of Israel, the technical staff, nor his performers who rise above the haphazard denouement with their wonderful artistry on display. For instance, Stephen Gifford’s scenic design, highlighted by a beautiful arch and a pastiche of blueish hues, immediately denotes warmly tropical vibes. Musical Director Anthony Lucca, his orchestra, and pit singers sturdily support the onstage performers, who all sound clear as day thanks to Jonathan A. Burke’s lush sound design. On the visual front, Alexandra Johnson’s costumes can be both island-appropriate and fabulously ostentatious; and, Choreographer Stephanie Landwehr deserves plaudits for laying out blocking and movement that yield poignant feelings, laughter, and exhilaration.
The behind-the-scenes captain on this island is, of course, Israel, who trusts his performers to let loose and relish in the festivities, which genuinely and infectiously comes through. The cast is led by the Broadway-seasoned Kim Huber, who is absolutely phenomenal and worth the price of admission alone as Donna. Huber impresses with beautifully sustained notes in her first number, “Money, Money, Money,” and then blows everyone away with the culminating and heartfelt, “The Winner Takes It All.” Huber has a breathtakingly preternatural control of her voice, sports a resounding range, and oftentimes sings better versions than can be heard on the original cast recording. Even more so, her acting is engagingly naturalistic — in the happy medium between not giving too little and never overdoing it.
For instance, we can empathize with the frustration of Huber’s Donna upon seeing her former lovers suddenly appear, before having her spirit buoyed by her longtime friends, Sandy Bainum’s Tanya and Lisa Dyson’s Rosie, who encouragingly sing “Chiquitita,” followed by an invigorating rendition of “Dancing Queen,” which sees the trio, empowered by hair appliances doubling as microphones in their hands, ebulliently cavort around Donna’s room. After all, as the backstory touches on, these women have a musical past as the group, Donna and the Dynamos, which makes its proud return clad in glittering, turquoise jumpsuits, reminiscent of ABBA at Wembley Stadium.
Sandy Bainum and Lisa Dyson are exemplary casting personified. It’s obvious how much they’re enjoying themselves — dancing, being outrageous, and generally unfettered in their depictions. For example, Bainum is commanding in her blue bikini and chiffon neon cover-up, as she teases and pushes Christopher Jewell Valentin’s Pepper (one of the hotel staff members along with Eddie, played by Anthony Broccoli) during “Does Your Mother Know.” And while Tanya is unflappably confident with men, Rosie is the relative underdog, which Dyson imparts in a loveable fashion, insofar that the audience is compelled to clap along as she jovially sings “Take a Chance on Me,” and tries to seduce the initially reluctant Bill Austin, an Australian adventurer and one of Sophie’s possible dads.
Christopher Robert Smith plays Bill with a cogent believability, also shining during “The Name of the Game,” as does Brayden Hade as Harry Bright, the gentle Brit and Sophie’s second possible father, who delights by sweetly singing “Our Last Summer.” The true object of Donna’s affection, however, is the last possible dad, Sam Carmichael, played by soap-opera star Eric Martsolf. The “Passions” and “Days of Our Lives” veteran is effortless when communicating discord between his character and Donna amid “SOS.” Moreover, Martsolf stands out for interpreting his vocal lines with a satisfying rock edginess and for having a star-quality presence throughout. Even Martsolf’s subtler moments, like conveying non-verbals while receiving mellifluously sung daggers by Huber’s Donna in “The Winner Takes It All,” can’t be understated.
Last but not least are Max DeLoach, who does an admirable job with his character, Sky, and UCLA graduate Nicolette Norgaard as Sophie, who inhabits her persona’s innocence exceedingly well. Norgaard is additionally versatile in how she communicates Sophie’s excitement, angst about who her father is (during the surreal “Under Attack”), and hopefulness. “I Have a Dream” is not only the quintessential song for Sophie, it is an ideal piece that punctuates Norgaard’s vocals, which are bright and vibrant. Not to mention, Norgaard complements not just Martsolf, Smith, Hade, and Huber well in their shared scenes together, but the spirited ensemble too with her underrated dancing.
Overall, 5-Star Theatricals’ production of “Mamma Mia!” is lighthearted, energetic, funny, and is the perfect getaway from all modern ills. ABBA’s hits come one after another, each one more revitalizing than the last. On one hand, the music is agreeably nostalgic and, on the other hand, it introduces a whole new generation to the legacy of the Swedish foursome and the discotheque era — rife with silver go-go boots and disco balls. With Director Israel at the helm, the cast, many of whom were supposed to star in “Mamma Mia!” 18 months ago, have now had their exultant homecoming and gotten 5 Star’s first musical of the 2021-22 season off to a soaring start.
“Mamma Mia!” can be experienced through Sunday, October 24th. Except for one evening performance on Thursday, October 21st, all other performances run Friday through Sunday. Tickets can be purchased through www.5startheatricals.com or by phone at (800) 745-3000.