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After nearly two decades of productions in the US alone, Mamma Mia!, the ABBA musical, is a proven hit, with 14 years on Broadway (the ninth longest running show) and multiple national tours (at least five having played the Triangle). Although the 2008 movie added millions more fans, it's the live stage version that keeps audiences coming back. When properly presented, there are few shows that can offer such upbeat, feel-good energy and charm.
Happily, NC Theatre's production gets it all right, guaranteeing a smile on your face and a tap in your toe. Warning: You WILL spend the last 15 minutes of the show on your feet, most likely with uncontrollable dancing and singing along.
The key reason the production is so successful is director Eric Woodall's total control over all the performance and technical elements. Triangle audiences have come to expect top professionalism from Woodhall, as exhibited in his many fine stagings for NC Theatre and Theatre Raleigh. But here Woodall has the extra advantage of having been casting director and resident director for the Broadway, Las Vegas, and touring productions of Mamma Mia! It's a pleasure to see such a vibrantly paced, evenly cast, and smoothly running show. Of course, even the best director must have a talented cast for the non-stop dancing and soaring vocals, and this production has an impressive mix of local and New York performers, many with NC roots.
Lauren Kennedy, a Triangle favorite, added another memorable turn as Donna, the single mother whose daughter, Sophie, is getting married without knowing who her father is (and Donna doesn't know either!). Kennedy gave Donna both defiance and vulnerability, topped by one of her most impressive vocal performances in many a season. She was especially poignant remembering her past love for Sam (one of the three possible fathers for Sophie) in "S.O.S." and was gripping in her bitter assumption that all romance is past in the showstopper "Winner Takes It All."
Mary Mattison's Sophie equaled Kennedy in characterization and vocals. Her quest to identify her father, by sending wedding invitations to the three mostly likely candidates, was sweetly engaging, while her easy, clear singing beautifully propelled her numbers, "I Have a Dream" and "Name Of the Game."
As Donna's former girl-group singing partners, Stephanie Pope (Tanya) and Lulu Picart (Rosie) lit up the stage in their flashy and exuberant reunion numbers, "Dancing Queen" and "Super Trouper." They both were fine comedians as well; Pope gave Tanya haughty elegance for her constantly lobbed zingers and Picart filled Rosie with an endearing, knock-about earthiness.
The actors portraying the possible fathers made it easy to root for any of them to be the one. Estes Tarver's Aussie adventurer, Bill, was a lovable, openhearted guy, while Gary Milner's proper Brit, Harry, got consistent laughs in trying to break out of his straight-laced ways. As Sam, whom Donna remembers with the most affection, Charlie Brady also turned in one of his best recent performances, projecting Sam's deep regret at leaving Donna, intensely expressed in his big number, "Knowing Me, Knowing You."
In supporting roles, Erica Durham and Sarah Sun Park as Sophie's friends Ali and Lisa, respectively, kept things lively with their bouncy personalities, while Ben Bogen's Pepper, a "ready for anything" worker at Donna's island taverna, amused with his flirty antics and athletic dancing.
Much of the show's electricity and pizazz can be credited to Monica Kapoor's choreography, the stage being constantly filled with fast-moving patterns and eye-catching partnering, performed with seemingly unending stamina by the entire cast. Music director Edward G. Robinson's orchestra was an engine of rhythmic thrust, turning the show into a snappy ride throughout.
LeGrande Smith's colorful, appropriate costumes provided sexy fun (beachwear) and glitzy fantasy (the girl-group's over-the-top outfits). Samuel Rushen's lighting made you feel the island sun and romantic starlight, enhancing J Branson's versatile taverna set and glitterball finale.
There's so little to criticize here (an act two energy dip during back-to-back low-key songs; the high intensity of the music's amplification) that it's only right to say NC Theatre has a huge hit on its hands and that a good time is assured.
Mamma Mia! continues through Sunday, February 17. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.