‘Mamma Mia!’ at Bucks County Theater in New Hope is a refreshing romp with ABBA

(Photo: Joan Marcus)

By John Dwyer

Like a paradox wrapped inside of a conundrum, “Mamma Mia!” shouldn’t work. How can the singular sound of ABBA be adapted to a story? No, impossible. But magically, “Mamma Mia!”makes perfect sense.

Let me explain. Jukebox musicals often seem contrived and just there to make money. So, it shouldn’t make sense for you to like it, right? You sit in your seat questioning how smart you were for buying a ticket to a show whose book seems really contrived, and you wish you were listening to a cover band in a music venue.

But the miracle of “Mamma Mia,” with its 23 ABBA songs, is that the story is engaging and with strong actors, which you definitely have here, it pulls the audience in to care about the Mamma named “Donna” who 21 years ago had a breakup with Sam, and then had sex with Bill and Harry. Sophie was born, but who is the dad?

Also, this “Mamma Mia!” keeps you up after seeing it. It is hard to go to sleep with ABBA’s songs circulating in your head, along with memories of the exceptional performances of an exceptional cast. Unforgettable songs in an unforgettable production can do that.

Michelle Dawson and cast (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Female-centric with sassy, smart independent women makes this the musical theater version of a kind of “Sex and the City.” Though the place is not the city, but a Mediterranean island vacation spot. Donna, played flawlessly by the talented Michelle Dawson, owns a small taverna/inn. Her daughter Sophie (Sara Masterson) is getting married to her fiancée, Sky (Devin Lewis). Donna told Sophie that she never knew who Sophie’s father was. Life was crazy then, and she doesn’t remember. But Sophie finds her mother’s diary from the time she was conceived. She invites the three possibilities who may be her father. She would like her dad to walk her down the aisle. She feels she will know which one is her pop, when she meets him. Her mother, Donna, does not know her ex-boyfriends have been invited.

Donna, in the meantime, is excited to see her old friends from her old rock group, Donna and the Dynamos, whom she invited to the wedding. This was a trio that included Donna, Tanya and Rosie. Tanya (Terra C. MacLeod), since then has been very successful luring in rich husbands, and has the high style and sexuality of a Samantha (“Sex in the City”). The aforementioned TV series preceded the musical by a year and, whether inspiration or not, “the female friends vs. problematic boyfriend show” seemed to be a genre in the late nineties. Rosie (Danielle Lee Greaves) is the Dynamo member who is more emotionally focused, looking for relationships, both for Donna and herself.

And, with all of that in the mix, “Mamma Mia!” takes off at a high gallop with unstoppable speed.

The unbelievably talented cast have achieved something very special with this production under the direction of gifted director John Tartaglia. So much so, that this show now belongs to that special group of shows produced by the Bucks County Playhouse that totally knocked it out of the park since it became an Equity house again. Those productions would include “Company” and “The Buddy Holly Story” as best musicals produced by the Playhouse. In talking to one of the actors, he credited director John Tartaglia for keeping the actors focused on the reality of the moment. Having been adopted myself and meeting my father late in life, there is a real story here that is given honest emotional context. This is not just comedy, but also a young person’s search for who they are and where they came from. It is also an emotional re-connect to a painful, confusing time for Donna, when her little girl was born. Donna had the joy and responsibility of a new baby, but also felt abandoned by family and the kept-in-the-dark infant’s father. The director and actors focus on that story, which brings about a strong emotional investment by the audience.

(Photo: Joan Marcus)

Just as the women of Donna and the Dynamos have staked out very distinct personality types, the three daddies are also decidedly different, and perfect for their roles. Sam is a handsome, strong, beefy architect who was Donna’s love back then. Michael Hunsaker as Sam puts forth every reason out there for why Donna fell for her him two decades ago. Strong jawed and stalwart, this is the guy that you can’t forge, like the fish that was so big but got away. But then, Bill is attractive too. This particular choice on this unexpected “The Dating Game Redux” is from Australia and is a writer and outdoor adventurer. But also,with a record obviously of being an indoor one, as well. Peter Saide is handsome, lanky and adorable in the role of this adventurer who is more at home with daily/nightly challenges than lifetime commitments. The role of Harry, ex-headbanger rock guy and now a British banker, is played by Michael Dean Morgan with almost poignant yearning for the old days and what was and could have been. Harry would love to be Sophie’s dad for a variety of reasons. As a banker, he is far from who he had been 20 years go.

There are so many wonderful moments in this show. The audience keeps yearning for the next song. It can’t get enough. Not just because of the great melodies but because of the terrific voices, performances and wonderful choreography and direction. That excellence means that there are not just 23 songs, but 23 highlights to the show.

Here are a few exceptional moments, to lure you off to the box office and the island.

Act One: “Money, Money, Money” with its lighting, great orchestration and vocals by Dawson.”Mamma Mia!” the title song with the dizzying reality of what is happening to Donna, with the wonderful staging with the ensemble, courtesy of director Tartaglia and the amazing choreographer, Shannon Lewis. She brings choreographic perfection to “Lay All Your Love on Me,” which starts with the passion of the young lovers, who bring it 100% to this song and throughout the show. Kudos to Sara Masterson and Devin Lewis. The flipper dance in this sequence is fun, precise and a guaranteed winner. The emotions of the story stir around and around until Act One’s dynamic “Voulez Vous.”

And with Act Two: the sly seduction by local islander Pepper, the charming Julius Washington, of the older, sexy Tanya (Terra C. McLeod) in the song “Does Your Mother Know?” Great choreography and what an extension does McLeod have. She must have a hinge instead of a hip. Sexy, there is just delicious fun throughout that song. “Take a Chance on Me” also has great sexy and comic choreography between Danielle Lee Greaves and Peter Saide as Rosie and Bill. I am blown away by Greaves and Saide, who are so precise and wonderful and hilarious in this fun, well-sung number, and by an entire cast that bring their “A” game to this show and make the characters and, inherently, the songs more compelling than when I saw the show originally at the Winter Garden in Manhattan.

William Shuler is always wonderful and should not be neglected as music director for his major contribution of bringing music to our ears. The set by Anna Louizos is exceptional and got applause when the curtain went up. This is a show that has a lot of lighting cues, so light needs to be shed on Gina Sher as lighting designer. Thumbs up to all cast and crew for a wonderful show.

I hope I am convincing you that the show is that good. It is a runaway train of good acting, singing and dancing that you don’t ever want to stop. At the bows, the leads come out in rock outfits from the past for one last taste. The audience is on its feet, singing along and clapping. Everyone leaves on a high. And that is, as ABBA would say, “The Name of the Game.”

The show runs thru August 3, and tickets are available online.


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