Mamma Mia! – Review by Tom Holehan

It’s been a while since Connecticut has welcomed a brand new professional theatre to its state, but in Ridgefield that is just what has happened with the debut of A Contemporary Theatre (ACT) of Connecticut. Under the leadership of founders Katie Diamond, Bryan Perri and Daniel C. Levine, ACT is a spiffy, nicely intimate (174 seats) and handsomely designed modern theatre space that has already planned a three-musical season to begin next October. As a prelude to that, however, the theatre is currently showcasing its inaugural production, “Mamma Mia!, and if opening night was any indication, the theatre is in good hands.

Full Disclosure: I’ve always been baffled by the ongoing popularity of “Mamma Mia!”, the blockbuster stage musical featuring the songs of Abba with a book by Catherine Johnson. It had a long and fruitful run on Broadway and is currently playing on national tours and in venues across the world. Now this mega musical is in residence at ACT delighting theatergoers of all ages as they practically dance in the aisles. I do question why “Mamma Mia!” was chosen as ACT’s debut event (Director Levine was in the original Broadway company), but I’m clearly in the minority when it comes to the popularity of this particular musical.

“Mamma Mia!” is set on a blissful Greek island where single mom Donna (petite powerhouse Juliet Lambert Pratt) has raised her daughter, Sophie (Emily Rogers, lovely), while keeping the identity of her father a secret. The problem is there are three candidates and Donna isn’t quite sure who the main man is. Cut to Sophie’s upcoming wedding and her desire to meet her dad so, unbeknownst to mom, she invites all three men to the nuptials. Complications, as they say, ensue. That’s it. “Mamma Mia!” may be one of the most book-thin musicals ever produced. Its sole existence seems to be the opportunity to shoehorn as many Abba songs as it can into and around the most meager of plots. Not that anyone minds. As I said, this has been one successful musical smash.

The ACT company is a strong one with all the lead women, including Donna’s friends Tanya (Jodi Stevens) and Rosie (Sheri Sanders), in fine vocal form. As the three potential dads, Craig Ramsay, Victor Hernandez and Michael Hunsaker all individually shine. Everyone on stage, in fact, can clearly sing though in a space as intimate as ACT, the volume need not be turned up to 11 as it is here. This includes Evan Zavada’s impressive orchestra which threatens (and often succeeds) to drown out the actors several times throughout the evening. The best moments may be Miss Rogers’ quiet and beautifully sung ballad, “I Have a Dream” which opens and closes the show on a welcome note of peace.

Director Daniel C. Levine keeps his company moving around perhaps over-directing some of the songs where less would be more. This is an issue also evident in Jason Wise’s very busy choreography which pushes a cast already working very hard and anxious to please. But there is no denying the power of the music when Pratt belts “The Winner Takes it All” or her relaxing duet with Hernandez, “Our Last Summer”. I still worry that no one in the company will have a voice by the time this exuberant musical ends its run in July, but they still get the audience on their feet at curtain with an encore of many of those insistent hit tunes. A week later I still can’t get “Dancing Queen” out of my head!

“Mamma Mia!” continues at ACT, 36 Old Quarry Road in Ridgefield, Connecticut through July 1. For further information and tickets visit: www.actofct.org.

Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.

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