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REVIEW: The Joys of Mamma Mia (Chanhassen Dinner Theatres)

Michelle Barber, Kersten Rodau, and Therese Walth as galpals in Chanhassen Dinner Theatres’ new production of Mamma Mia!

If you’d asked me 20 years ago about the commercial future of Mamma Mia!, a then-new musical set to open in London’s West End, I would have said “Don’t invest in it.” You would have lost a lot of money – not from the show, but from listening to my advice. Mamma Mia! is one of the greatest commercial successes in musical theatre in the world.

To someone who strongly espouses the virtues of a well-written book musical with a deep plot, Mamma Mia!‘s success was puzzling, to say the least. The show’s plot is light, the songs usually have the thinnest possible connection to the story, and a good social worker or counselor could probably clean up the characters’ problems in a group counseling session that takes half the time of the show. And that would be measuring this fun-filled show by the wrong metric and missing the larger point of Mamma Mia!, which is about having fun and hanging out with your dear ones.

Galpals Ali (Renee Guittar), Sophie (Jessica Fredrickson), and Lisa (Emily Sue Bengtson) hanging out. Photo by Tom Wallace.

During the development of Mamma Mia!, a then-unknown singer from San Diego named Jewel released a song with these lyrics:

My hands are small, I know, 
But they’re not yours, they are my own.

Mamma Mia! will not generate any deep introspection on the universe. It will not win any awards for plot twists, for innovative storytelling, or anything like that. But if you go to Chanhassen Dinner Theatres and watch the current production directed by Michael Brindisi, you’d be hard-pressed not to have a good time. The cast’s enthusiasm is infectious, the dancing lively, and many of the lighter parts are played with just the right amount of over-the-top to make them more joyful than cotton candy. The characters’ problems may seem small, but they are their own, and thus important to them – and many others, besides.

Still not with me? Having polled people for years about why they love Mamma Mia! so, I’ve compiled the following list:

  1. Single motherhood (almost 10 million households in the United States) is front and center.
  2. It celebrates hanging out with old friends and gal-pals.
  3. It touches on the swirl of feelings from seeing an old flame (or three).
  4. It non-judgmentally explores questions of why people do and don’t get married.
  5. There’s a dance in snorkeling gear.
  6. The big production numbers are always sparkly and delightfully over the top.
  7. It’s just fun.

Back to Chanhassen: single mother Donna (Kersten Rodau)’s grown daughter Sophie (Jessica Fredrickson) is getting married on a Greek island. Sophie wants her father to be part of the ceremony, and after reading her mom’s diary invites three likely candidates to the island under false pretenses. That’s about all you need to know about the plot, because we’re on to number two. Donna spends a lot of time reconnecting with her old friends/bandmates, Tanya (Michelle Barber) and Rosie (Therese Walth). Naturally, they find a trunk with old band costumes, and the next thing you know there’s a case of ABBA Gold breaking out onstage.

ABBA Gold?” you ask. Ah, yes, I forgot to mention that the show’s soundtrack consists entirely of hit songs by one of the hottest pop groups of the 1970s and early ’80s. At opening night, a lot of the audience was mouthing the lyrics, and by the last songs there was spontaneous dancing breaking out in the aisles. A large number of these songs feature Rodau, whose performance is vocally and dramatically superb, and often in excellent combination with Barber and Walth.

Michelle Barber (as Tanya) proves too hot for Pepper (Rush Benson) to handle. Photo by Tom Wallace.

As Sophie, Jessica Fredrickson firmly steps out of the supporting limelight of recent CDT shows (e.g., Holiday InnGrease) into the star spotlight. Her performance captures a key mixture of youthful energy, naïvete, and pathos to sell a few narrative bridges in the plot, and keep things going. It’s pleasantly novel to see Fredrickson actually paired onstage with her real-life spouse Aleks Knezevich (as Sky), but the two spend less time singing together than you might think. When they do, however, it’s a good one – some of Tamara Kangas Erickson’s best choreography for the male ensemble is featured in “Lay All Your Love on Me”.

At the end of the day, however, Mamma Mia! is definitely keeping the lights on the ladies. Whether it’s the infectious female ensemble performance of “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)”, Michelle Barber nailing the smoky pseudo-cougar song “Does Your Mother Know?”, or any number of female trios, this show is just fun. That’s not everything, but it’s plenty enough reason for a trip out to the Western ‘burbs. And there’s that snorkel dance number.

Mamma Mia! plays through September 28, 2019 at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres in Chanhassen, MN.

Basil Considine