Review: Mamma Mia! Music and Lyrics by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus. And some songs with Stig Anderson. Book by Catherine Johnson. Originally Conceived by Judy Craymer. Produced by The 5th Avenue Theatre. Directed by Bill Berry. Musical Direction by R.J. Tancioco. Choreography by Bob Richard. Scenic Design by Jason Sherwood. Costume Design by Rose Pederson. Lighting Design by Mike Baldassari. Sound Design by Joanna Lynne Staub. Wig & Hair Design by May Pyanowski Jones. With Kendra Kassebaum, Lisa Estridge, Eliza Palasz, Sarah Rudinoff, Jordan Iosua Taylor, Cobey Mandarino, Matt Wolfe, Travis Brown, Kate E. Cook, Alexandria Henderson, Jonathan Luke Stevens, and Paolo Montalban. Now through February 25, 2018 at The 5th Avenue Theatre.
It’s all subjective. Well, not facts but opinions about arts and entertainment and stuff in general. There are many people on the planet who jump up and down at the idea of a Donald Trump presidency and then there are sensible people who find the idea horrifyingly repugnant.
The same is true of any topic. There are people who hate chocolate, British baking shows, kitties, flowers and ABBA and then there are non-emotionally crippled people who sensibly j’adore all those things.
Now, some of us have TASTE and prefer Ghirardelli to a Mars Bar and carnations over daffodils and good ABBA songs like “Waterloo” versus dreadful ones like “Under Attack”.
And, speaking of ABBA, there’s also the question of their goofy jukebox musical MAMMA MIA! which has made the Swedish super pop group billions of dollars over the last 20 years and will probably continue to make them billions of dollars until the End of Days. And, why not? They made fun, happy pop songs with catchy beats and silly lyrics. They’re like sunshine and kitties and hot cocoa drinks with marshmallows in them. Pure joy.
So, if you like ABBA to some degree or another you’re going to have some fun at any competent production of Mamma Mia! The sheer fun of the music will carry you along to the end of the evening regardless of the show’s stupider than thou script complete with a dumb plot that’s been done before and cardboard characters saying very silly lines that kinda/sorta lead into songs written 40 or more years ago that may or may not actually have anything to do with the actual emotion being expressed in the scene.
It’s mostly fun junk. Even if there’s a dud song or a lazy performance, you’ll eventually be revived by a favorite ABBA song exquisitely performed. And, that’s exactly the case with the 5th Avenue Theatre’s currently running production of “MM!” It’s a newly designed production with a delicious scenic design by Jason Sherwood that’s such an improvement over the dreary unit set used in the Broadway production and the 2o million touring productions over the last 19 years. It’s full of sunny skies and the delightfully cool Mediterranean Sea all blending together in a very Grecian wash of 30 different shades of blue. It has lovely lighting by Mike Baldassari and colorful resort wear costumes (including those damn overalls worn by the main character) by Rose Pederson. It’s a beauty of a production that also includes a very attractive ensemble of young folks in skimpy summer clothes bouncing around the huge 5th Avenue stage and temporarily helping us forget the grey drizzle of Seattle in February.
But, it’s also still cursed with that dumb book. The one with the corny plot about the girl getting married to the boy and planning her wedding but since she was raised by a single mother on a tiny Greek island and never told who her father was, she resorts to reading her mother’s diary from the summer the girl was conceived (circa 1979) and discovering Mom got busy with three dudes. So, girl invites all three of them to her wedding and wackiness ensues.
Oh, and there’s also Mom’s two best friends who show up to help out…and, the three of them had some sort of disco pop girl trio act back in the late 70s. And, there’s the singing of a couple dozen ABBA hits.
As usual, the best bits are Mom’s Best Friends who are major comic relief and get the two funniest numbers in the show. The 5th Avenue’s production of Mamma Mia! is worth seeing just for the pretty new set AND seeing the delightful Lisa Estridge put some funk and soul into “Does Your Mother Know?” and the very hilarious Sarah Rudinoff and one of the Maybe Dad’s played by Matt Wolfe, do a fantastically funny “Take A Chance On Me”.
There’s also the joy of hearing Kendra Kassebaum’s gorgeous voice interpret ABBA songs, even though Donna, the show’s main character/Mom doesn’t have much to do except fret and sing songs in this show.
Cobey Mandarino is very good as another one of the Maybe Dads though he’s unfortunately stuck with a meh song to sing.
The cute kid couple consists of Eliza Palasz as Sophie and Jordan Iosua Taylor as Sky and they fulfill the necessary obligations for their roles in this silly show. Be cute (her) and be hunky (him).
The show has a couple problems though. Oddly, much like the film adaptation from a decade ago that starred Meryl Streep, this version of Mamma Mia! also has issues with their Main Maybe Dad, the character “Sam” that had the biggest romance with “Donna” all those years ago and now eager to rekindle their relationship. The film had hunky Pierce Brosnan in that role, who was appropriately hunky but a terrible singer. This production at the 5th Avenue has the appropriately hunky Paolo Montalban in that role and while he is a better singer than Mr. Brosnan, he’s also really blandly uninspiring in the part. Other than the fact he’s a handsome fellow, you can’t really get why Donna would want to get back together with this dull cough drop.
The other problem is the rather lackluster band led by popular Seattle area music director R.J. Tancioco. This is a POP MUSIC show, not Rodgers & Hammerstein and we need to hear the band get FUNKY with the music. It’s all so slow and ponderous at times. These are superb musicians but we need it to feel more like an ABBA concert circa 1979 and not an Evening at the Pops with your Grandpa. They do finally “rock out” a bit for the obligatory post curtain call mini-concert but we need that passion heard at the beginning of the night as well.
Who is Mamma Mia! for?
Hardcore ABBA fans obviously. The fun bits of music get you over the less fun bits.
Review: The Gin Game by D.L. Coburn. Produced by Village Theatre. Directed by Jeff Steitzer. Scenic Design by Bill Forrester. Costume Design by Laura Crow. Lighting Design by Rick Paulsen. Sound Design by Brent Warwick. With Kurt Beattie and Marianne Owen. Now through February 25, 2018 at the Francis J. Gaudette Theatre in Issaquah and March 2 – 25, 2018 at Everett Performing Arts Center.
Meanwhile, out at the other major musical theater company in the Seattle metro area, it’s time for their annual “Musical Theater Break”. Yes, it’s winter time which means Issaquah’s Village Theater is “taking it easy” (at least budget wise) by producing a “straight” play instead of their usual musicals.
This year’s show is an especially good bargain for the company: it’s a famous two hander, THE GIN GAME, the 1978 Pulitzer Prize winning dramatic comedy (or, is it comedic drama?) about a pair of lonely elders bondin’ and feudin’ at a run down retirement home who spend most of their time playing….gin games.
Over the course of the 2 acts (each divided into 2 scenes) the pair, Fonsia Dorsey, a divorced mother of a son who supposedly lives far away and Weller Martin, who’s also disconnected from his family, bond over common frailties and dissatisfaction with their living arrangements but also battle over the game they’re playing. Fonsia, mostly a novice to cards, turns out to have a knack for gin and consistently beats Weller who grows more and more enraged that he’s losing all the time.
And, that’s the gist of the play…two seniors playing gin while revealing much about themselves and their situation over the course of two hours. There’s a lot of laughter in The Gin Game, but there’s also lots of pain. Examining human frailty is seldom a barrel of laughs.
Donald Coburn’s 40 year old play still holds up…its themes are timeless after all and the play is beautifully written. It’s not an especially ground breaking work; it’s a traditionally formatted, well made play with some lovely and poignant insights into the rigors of aging. It provides terrific roles for older actors and here we come to a chief highlight of The Gin Game…getting to enjoy local theater titans/real life couple Marianne Owen and Kurt Beattie lovingly play those roles. They both give lovely, nuanced performances here, that encompass lots of humor but also lots of pain and rage. Both are well directed by another great Seattle actor/director, Jeff Steitzer. It’s a solid production of a solid play, albeit one that is a bit old fashioned.
To be honest, fans of Seattle theater and specifically of great local actors would be the recommended audience for the Village’s production of The Gin Game. It’s a lovely chance to see talented older actors shine in roles tailor made for them.
But, you’ll need a drink afterward. Or, maybe some cake. Go play with some kids. Something to cheer you up. The Gin Game is a Debbie Downer of a play. It’s the kind of show only enjoyed by people who really enjoy well crafted theater. If you’re looking for light frivolity or ground breaking topicality, you’ll need to look elsewhere.