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Mamma Mia!

May 24, 25, 30, 31, June 1, 2019
Childs Auditorium, Deep River

Written by Catherine Johnson
Based on the music of ABBA
Directed by Kristen Glowa

Review by The North Renfrew Times, 2019 June 5:


Mamma Mia’s sex-positive, feminist, family-redefining message is a bright and beautiful project for the Deep River Players.

Last year, the Deep River Players delivered Anything Goes: a technically complex, dazzling, and witty classic-musical performance that was forced to grapple with the racist and misogynist undertones of its writing.

This year, the players turned about-face and delivered us a bright, enjoyable, jukebox-genre musical, Mamma Mia. The play, conceived by producer Judy Craymer, turned the traditionally sexist lyrics of ABBA on their head to deliver a positive and emboldening feminist take-home message: every woman’s strength and independence should be celebrated and encouraged.

The struggle director Kristin Glowa faced was two-fold: increasing the theatrical flair of a relatively light script, and broadcasting the powerful message of equality and independence without sacrificing character development. Masterfully, and with the critical support of the cast, the orchestra, and production, Glowa reigned supreme with a captivating, engaging and empowering rendition of Judy Cramer’s Mamma Mia.

The Deep River Players’ front-of-house staff was ready and brightly-dressed to deliver our programs which included a fun and interactive slip inviting us to “Join In” on two toe-tapping ABBA songs, Mamma Mia and Waterloo. The stage began essentially bare with a cut-out Grecian wall, a small post-office box and a curious extension at the forefront of the stage which hinted that this seemingly straightforward show had a few creative surprises up its sleeve. The lights were bright, exciting and perfectly placed. The scene was set for a great show.

The Orchestra, led by the meticulous Rob Carson, began our experience with a booming and room-filling overture which highlighted the talents of the band. Darlene TerMarcsh, Brenda Forsythe and Adrian Cecco seemed to always be in perfect sync. Drummer Malcolm Griffiths and Bassist Mike Britton offered a steady and consistent beat in even the most challenging of songs. The musical spotlight of this rock/pop show, however, must be given to Casey Tomkins, percussionist and Jason Koebel and Sean Cameron, guitarists, who brought back to life the nostalgic choruses of ABBA’s hit songs with well-timed and poignant leads and flourishes.

The play, Mamma Mia, is at its very surface, the story of Donna Sheridan. Donna is a single-mother and entrepreneur who has raised her daughter, Sophie Sheridan, with her own wits and strong-will. Young Sophie is set to be married in Greece to her fiancé, Skye. We begin in the days leading to the marriage.

Wishing to have her father walk her down the aisle, Sophie invites her mom’s three ex-boyfriends (Harry, Bill and Sam) to determine which of them is Sophie’s father. Donna is supported throughout by her two best friends, Tanya and Rosie, who help her through the drama leading-up to her daughter’s nuptials. The chorus act as the other guests at the marriage and we are brought on a destination-wedding, ABBA-Style through hot weather, hot-button issues and even hot-and-steamy scenes.

The first character we met was Sophie Sheridan, played by Maggie Kirkwood. Although it was a high-bar in this musical with strong performances by leads and chorus alike, Maggie shone through as a triple-threat star. Sparkle-eyed, Maggie’s expressive face and full-body acting pulled the audience in from the first scene. Maggie from time-to-time even broke the fourth wall, by delivering witty and response-begging reactions seemingly directly to the audience. Although in the opening song, Maggie seemed to be somewhat tentative, we happily followed Sophie’s character through the play as her character, and Maggie’s own performance, grew impressively stronger. Maggie’s beautiful voice, tight choreography, and enthralling acting created an amazing performance. By the final song, “I have a Dream”, it became clear that Maggie had revealed herself as the shiniest of all the bright stars. Bravo!

Opposing Sophie was her mother, Donna, played by Jessica Logan. Donna Sheridan is a particularly complicated character who is discussed by other characters as being a strong, fun and blazée woman-in-charge. However, when we first meet Donna, she is at-once thrown into a whirlwind of impossible Maury-Pauvich-style drama which shakes her character. As an actress, this is a particularly difficult role to accept since the writing does not allow Jessica to show us herself Donna’s in-control baseline personality.

The first few scenes for Donna include a great deal of reaction without much character build. Jessica’s very large, comical reactions in the first half, however, were placed into context by her second act performance where her acting chops certainly came through. In the second half, we were able to see a deeper side of Donna: the contemplative woman who could see through a jumbled mix of past-romances and paternity mix-ups to find a future with a person she chooses and to be a mother to her daughter. Donna sang and danced the well-known songs Money, Money, Money and Mamma Mia, however, her power songs also came in the second half.

Notably, it was in fact the song, “The Winner Takes it All”, that inspired creator Judy Craymer to create an ABBA-based musical. Hearing Jessica sing this song fully justified Craymer’s decision and brought us to a more solemn note in this otherwise bouncy musical. Jessica became the Donna we all want to be deep inside and conquered the challenge of a very difficult character.

Donna’s friends, Tanya and Rosie, were a musical theatre-buff’s caricature dreams. Both women are prominently featured in the musical, with intricate acapella harmonies, larger-than-life physical comedy, and subtle witty lines throughout. Bailey Waite as Tanya and Angela Mayhew as Rosie rose to the challenge and delivered scene after scene of comedic relief and songs. Mackenzie’s auditorium is well-known for its unique acoustic challenges, which seemed to have impacted harmonies in one or two small parts. However, any difficulties that Bailey and Angela encountered were easily surpassed by the dynamic and powerful singing and dancing that characterized this duo in Dancing Queen and Super Trouper.

Both Tanya and Rosie had special comedic songs designed to create hilarity. Tanya and Pepper, played by Jonathan Steele, delivered a guffawing love-struck number “Does Your Mother Know”, resulting in plenty of audience laughter. While Rosie and Bill, played by Steven Bemis, delivered a much more R-Rated lust song, “Take a Chance on Me”, which certainly would have teased the limits of the audience’s sensitivities to sexuality on stage. However, in the spirit of Mamma Mia’s sex-positive outlook… Girate on, kids!

There is no question that Troy Wilson’s singing voice was made for Sam Carmichael, one of Donna’s exes. Some of the best songs in the show were the beautiful and pitch-perfect duets with Donna. Troy’s song performance could only have been enhanced with movement and blocking during these longer songs to compliment the beautiful and powerful music he was making. Exes Harry (Gord Burton) and Bill (Steven Bemis) delivered lovely singing as well, but particularly excelled in their acting and dancing with Sophie and with the Chorus. Gord’s expressive body movements were the epitome of physical comedy while Steven’s facial expressions showed an authentic understanding of the subtle humour of his character.

The bridal party, made of Ali (Nicole Lebel), Lisa (Rhiannon Monckton), Pepper (Jonathan Steele) and Eddie (Sam Bessey) were always a treat to have on stage. These characters often led the chorus through fun and difficult dance pieces and seemed to lead the full cast in expression, communicating the sheer amount of fun they were having directly to the audience.

While all the leads had super performances, the chorus sccertainly pushed this show to new levels of greatness. The glittery, almost campy, costumes that replaced the more simple jean-shorts-swimsuit initial clothing, caught our attention and brought extra life to the characters. All of the chorus songs and scenes were choreographed and blocked to make the most interactive and expansive use of the stage. The show’s title song, Mamma Mia, had the cast farcically popping-up and popping-out of windows, doors, floors to join-in. Unexpectedly, we were treated to a full dance routine brilliantly featuring swim fins, swimsuits and (yes) drawn-on abdominal muscles and cleavage. All of this could not have flown but for the engagement and meticulous dancing of the cast and chorus.

Not only during chorus songs but even during the leads’ solos, the chorus was often heard in the background providing multiple-part harmony and back-up in the song. It can be extremely difficult to meet cues without seeing the conductor, however, this chorus delivered time and again. It was impossible to find a chorus character, even during scenes where they were simply observers, who was not fully in character, engaged, and interacting with the scene. Some highlights included the contortionist gymnast moves in the nightmare scene, the group ballroom dancing with the Exes, and the visual masterpiece, Voulez-Vous. Finally, while we are somewhat split on how we feel about poking fun at the priest’s speech impediment, we are unanimous that his very long-drawn-out words, pauses and expressions were a beautiful gem of humour that everyone loves to have at the end of a good show.

Now the sex stuff. This musical had several lines, and even scenes, that would raise the brow of even a fairly liberal audience member. Lines like, “Wax my nipples”, and “Three men? That takes me back”. In fact, a large topic of the show is Donna’s past promiscuity. While it can be tempting to call anything sex-related controversial, the sex positivity that was threaded through the musical was portrayed in a way that did not put-down any group of people, shame any lifestyle or otherwise demean or degrade. In fact, the breeziness by which sex was incorporated into the musical paved the way for the much more important themes in the show of single motherhood, friendship, financial independence and agency within relationships.

Mamma Mia was a fabulous presentation with a timely message of empowerment, acceptance and independence. Smiling all the way to the end, this musical delivered the taste of summer we all need right now with a dose of nostalgia and a twinkle of sex.