By Lauren Van Hemert
If you go into the North Carolina Theatre production of Mamma Mia! looking for a piece of theater that is prophetic or life-changing, then you might be disappointed. But, if you go into it, like most theater-goers familiar with the show and the music do, as a form of escapism, then this production fires on all cylinders.
The story revolves around a wedding. Young Sophie is getting married and wants her father to walk her down the aisle. The problem is, she has three possible fathers, Sam, Harry, and Bill. So, she invites them all to the wedding, with the hope of figuring out which one is her real dad. Chaos and comedy, sometimes bordering on the ridiculous, ensue, but that, along with the ABBA songbook, is the joy of Mamma Mia!
Let’s face it if you are going to produce a formulaic show, and what could be more formulaic than a jukebox musical, then you need to know which elements within the confines of that structure need to come together to be successful. You can rely on instinct or fall back on your experience, and fortunately for North Carolina Theatre, Director Eric Woodall brings both his keen watchful eye, along with a wealth of experience and history with the show, to this production.
Woodall’s relationship with Mamma Mia! goes back to his days working as a casting director for Tara Rubin. In fact, not only was Mamma Mia! the first show he ever cast when he began working at the firm over a decade ago, but he also worked as Resident Director of the Broadway, Las Vegas, and National touring companies.
And he’s not alone in his quest to revisit and reimagine Mamma Mia! for the North Carolina Theatre stage. Choreographer Monica Kapoor, who is responsible for the high-octane, tight dance numbers in this production, spent seven years on Broadway performing in Mamma Mia!. And Music Director Edward G. Robinson not only served as Musical Director the North American US premieres of Mamma Mia!, but also as served as Music Supervisor of the first National Tour. He’s responsible for the distinctive sound of this production coming from both on stage and off.
In addition to a top-notch creative team, Woodall has assembled a cast of both veterans and newcomers to infuse this production with energy and heart. At the center of the adult love story between Sophie’s mom, Donna, and wannabe dad Sam, are real-life husband and wife Lauren Kennedy and Charlie Brady. Vocally, Kennedy is on her game, belting out song after song, but she is especially captivating during “Winner Takes It All.” Brady too charms in multiple numbers, but commands the stage with his rendition of “Knowing Me, Knowing You.” But like many formulaic stories of this kind, it’s often the supporting characters who are the most memorable. And that is certainly the case here. Stephanie Pope (Tanya) and Lulu Picart (Rosie) as Donna’s best gal pals and back-up singers are comedic golden girls. An expressive Pope has some show-stopping moments, including a rousing rendition of “Does Your Mother Know.” Picart has her moment during “Take a Chance on Me” in which she seduces an unassuming Bill played by Estes Tarver. And both women will not disappoint fans of the ever-popular song “Dancing Queen,” in which they share the stage with Kennedy in an entertaining display that punctuates the trio’s physical and vocal prowess and onstage chemistry.
Structurally, the second act doesn’t have nearly the same verve as the first, but stick around, because the payoff comes during the show’s finale, which will have you wishing you had worn your bellbottoms and platform shoes. Cheaper than a plane ticket to the Greek Isles, the North Carolina Theatre production of Mamma Mia! is a musical trip and adrenaline rush that will have you singing, dancing, and smiling all the way into next week.
Mamma Mia! runs through Sunday at The Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts. For more information visit: https://nctheatre.com/.
Click here to listen to this week’s RDU on Stage podcast episode featuring Eric Woodall, Charlie Brady, and Lauren Kennedy.