Sure, it’s campy. And kitschy. And schmaltzy. And it celebrates everything about the music and culture of the 1970s that many baby boomers might prefer to forget. But Mamma Mia!, which Town Theatre is currently producing, invites the viewer to embrace excess and cliche. Or as Tanya (Shannon Scruggs) and Rosie (Shirley McGuinness) suggest to their gal pal and former bandmate Donna (Marybeth Berry) when she protests that she grew up, “Grow back down again.”
The 1999 jukebox musical by Catherine Johnson is based on the songs of the pop band ABBA. Familiar hits by composers Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus (the two Bs in the band’s titular acronym) are arranged by the playwright to create an original story, similar to frothy musical comedies from the 1920s — the type spoofed in Town Theatre’s 2011 production of The Drowsy Chaperone — in which assorted glamorous types assemble in a posh setting, suitable for romance and intrigue to develop.
Donna has struggled to raise her daughter Sophie (Kristy O’Keefe) as a single mom on an exotic Greek island. Sophie’s impending wedding at age 20 inspires the bride-to-be to seek out three men (Clayton King, Gil Young and Joel Yarborough) who might be her father, at least based on the ellipsis in her mother’s 21-year-old diary entries: “One thing led to another, and … dot dot dot.” Sure enough, all three potential baby daddies show up, with the expected comedic results.
Many of the songs, such as “I Have a Dream” — sung beautifully and wistfully by a radiant O’Keefe at the show’s beginning and end — suited the mood. Others, including “Dancing Queen” and “Super Trouper,” were an occasion for Berry, Scruggs and McGuinness to recreate the repertoire of their characters’ singing group, Donna and the Dynamos. At a recent opening weekend performance, director Charlie Goodrich ensured that his leads never neglected the warmth and meaning found in the show's non-musical scenes, with Tanya and Rosie providing unconditional love and support for their old friend, which Donna then passed on to Sophie in a tender, pre-wedding moment of nurturing, motherly affection.
Scruggs drew the longest and loudest round of applause with her comically vampy rendition of “Does Your Mother Know,” showing off the lower range of her always powerful voice on a song originally written for and by a man (composer Ulvaeus). McGuinness and Young were similarly amusing on “Take a Chance On Me,” reimagined as an ode to geek love. Berry delved deeply into her character’s conflicted emotions on “The Winner Takes It All,” delivering the lyrics’ meaning via actings skills as well as vocal proficiency.
For me, the performance's most rewarding aspect was O’Keefe’s bravura turn as Sophie, who is as much the female lead as her mother. O’Keefe has typically been seen as a featured dancer at Town, portraying the Dream Ballet version of Laurey in 2014’s Oklahoma and the slinky Leopard in 2013's Tarzan the Musical. She’s also stolen scenes in brief, comic character roles as giddy bimbos in 2014’s White Christmas and 2018’s Beauty and the Beast. Here she seamlessly transitioned into a romantic lead, displaying excellent comic timing and a delicate and appealing singing voice that increased in confidence and assertion as the show progressed, along with her usual dancerly gracefulness.
It should be noted that the lead female roles are all double-cast. On alternating nights, Donna, Sophie, Tanya and Rosie are portrayed by Rebecca Seezen, Kasey Dickason, Dell Goodrich and Robin Saviola, respectively.
It should also be noted that the production isn't perfect. Danny Harrington's scenic design seemed overly simple, as if quickly slapped together, conveying a vague sense of the tropics, but not exactly Greece. The ensemble of nearly 30 singers often seemed crowded and smushed together, resulting in a claustrophobic effect on stage. Most of ABBA's hits featured high harmonies from the band’s As — Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad — and some of those high notes proved elusive for the male leads. Overall, however, Sharon Altman’s musical direction captured the rich sound of the originals.
Choreography by Christy Shealy Mills and costumes from Billy Bishop and Jillian Carey complemented the score's ’70s vibe, falling somewhere in between glam and disco. A particularly effective moment came during “Dancing Queen,” as the audience saw both the middle-aged Dynamos, as well as dreamlike images of their younger selves. Plenty of laughs were generated in several comic numbers involving the male ensemble, including some inspired dance steps performed while wearing scuba flippers.
There’s not much depth to be found in the script, or in the lyrics for that matter, beyond a general endorsement of keeping your loved ones close, finding your bliss, and following your heart. Yet there was an audible sigh of disappointment from the audience as house lights came up for intermission after the first act, signifying a fervent, collective desire for the music not to stop.
Taken at face value, Mamma Mia! delivers exactly what one might hope to find in an ABBA musical — frivolous fun, catchy melodies and lots of sparkles and glitter.
What: Mamma Mia!
Where: Town Theatre, 1012 Sumter St.
When: Through May 19
Price: $25 ($20 seniors 65-plus, full-time college students, active duty military; $15 youth 17 and under)
More: 803-799-2510, towntheatre.com