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REVIEW: ‘Mamma Mia!’ at Music Mountain Theatre in Lambertville

By John Dwyer

Mamma mia, here I go again.
My my, how can I resist you?”

These are the first lines of the ABBA song “Mamma Mia,” and are appropriate as Music Mountain Theatre in Lambertville has mounted the high-energy, fun audience pleaser after a nearby theater did the same less than two months ago. Generally, I would not mention that but, due to the proximity in time and place, I felt it is appropriate. But first let’s look at the show at Music Mountain.

There is something contagious about ABBA music. I know that I am not alone in my knee jerk reaction that, upon hearing it, like a Pavlovian dog I start to tap my feet. The music makes you smile and want to dance. It stays and takes up lodging in your head for days. It is a show that, I am sure, is fun to produce, direct, act and sing in and watch.

The premise works, though on the face of it all, it seems improbable. A young girl named Sophie Sheridan, living on the Greek island of Kalokairi, is getting married to a young man named Sky. She would love to have her father walk her down the aisle, but does not know who her father is. She got ahold of her mother’s diary from around the time she would have been conceived and dad could be one of three men. She invites all three to the wedding in the hope she would be able to pick out somehow who is her parent. Her mother, Donna, is unaware.

When all three arrive, old feelings are stirred up and the musical comedy takes off. The three ex-suitors are Sam, an American architect, Bill, an American adventurer/travel writer, and Harry, a British banker. By the way, Donna’s old friends from her girl group disco days are coming to the wedding as well. Back in the day, they were “Donna and the Dynamos.”  The friends are the much married Tanya, known for her expensive tastes, and the more easy-going, unmarried Rosie. Throughout the story, there are 24 irresistible ABBA songs.

Anna Hentz and Jill Gibilisco as Donna and Sophie are great as the mother and daughter. Their strong vocal abilities make their numbers shine. To do that is no easy feat, as the songs are such well known pop songs that they invite comparisons to the original group. Moreover, many ABBA songs are high energy to begin with and they have a building dynamic that makes them difficult to sing stationary, let alone dancing all over the stage.

Which brings us to the kudos that are well deserved for director and choreographer, Louis Palena. I especially was impressed by “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!” and “Under Attack.” The dancers certainly went thru their paces. It is always a pleasure to watch the troupe dance, especially loving the long-legged wonders Jaime Geddes and Sharon Rudda. It is also great to see young male dancers, like Travis Gawason, enjoying the choreography and executing it well.

I also loved the scenes between Sophie and Sky and the reality of what is going on onstage between the newly wedded-couple Gigi and Jill Gibilisco. In real life, these two young people were recently married and the inter-connectedness in their scenes in the song “Lay All Your Love on Me” to an emotional confrontation to the final scene of their walking into the sunset seems lovingly real and were great moments in the show. Anna Hentz’s song, as the mother, of “Slipping Through My Fingers,” was lovingly poignant and moving, as well.

Good job to boyfriends and possible fathers! Michael Moeller showed palpable paternal instincts for his newly found daughter as Sam. Erik Snyder had a fun time as Bill, especially in his relationship with the feisty Rosie. Bill Weir as Harry had a lovely duet with Donna doing the song “Our Last Summer.” I did feel that Harry’s British accent could be more pronounced but that is a minor quibble.

Donna’s invited guests from The Dynamos were well cast and hilarious. Anne Odland has the necessary comedy chops and leggy beauty to be Tanya, who is a bit like Samantha from “Sex in the City,” a sophisticated woman who knows how to cash in on her assets. Toni Thompson is a delight, however she is cast and wherever she appears. Her Rosie is no exception. She has an instinctive comedic sense. The audience always roots for her. Her bubbly joy pours out and it becomes that it is almost impossible not to love her.

Jordan Brennan’s costumes are always spot-on. The last scene with the leads in over-the-top early ’80s rock gear was laugh-out-loud extraordinary.

Now, concerning the previous incarnation of this at Bucks County Playhouse: This is the same script but a different production. It does not have the Broadway casting or production team or the much higher budget. It does have some wonderful talent, though. I am so in awe regarding The Music Mountain Theatre’s focus on nurturing talent. So, you will see some very good performers with some novices who are getting better and better. The acting school that is there is making a difference in young performer’s lives who will go on to possibly be professional or, maybe, just go on to be better people for having been in a show. But this is great theater and a good time, though it is a bit of a different animal from the lavish Playhouse production.

I mean for God’s sake, I got a glow stick at intermission, my foot keeps tapping to the music though it has been several days, you can take a picture of yourself under an arbor as a newlywed in the lobby. And, best of all, you can see how love is transforming and how family finds itself. The play’s the thing and so is love. I do love this “Mamma Mia!” Oh, how can I resist you?

The show runs through until Oct 6, and tickets are available online.

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