“Mamma Mia,” here we go again …
And that news makes me chipper.
Fresno last got its “Mamma Mia” fix in 2015 when the third visit of a national tour rolled through, and it wasn’t at the top of its class. (Previously, much more polished national tours stopped here in 2006 and 2008.) Now Good Company Players brings us a homespun version of the title, and I’m happy to say it’s better (and a lot more intimate) than the version that most recently played the Saroyan Theatre. An energetic cast, clever design and buoyant vocals all help GCP deliver the ABBA fix that fans expect.
There were some weak spots, mostly among individual actors, in the opening-weekend performance I attended, but I’m hoping that as the run settles in, many of them will get stronger. Some observations:
The vocals soar. The best thing about this “Mamma Mia” are all those deftly performed ABBA songs, which are delivered to the audience with the layered tracks, rhythmic intricacies and percussive vocalizations that everyone expects. Vocal coach Judith Dickison whips all those parts — as many as 15 in some songs — into a pleasing ensemble. I like how the vocals seem to surround you in the intimate space of Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater.
The plot is a little silly. But you knew that already about this jukebox musical. In fact, over the years, I’ve very much warmed to the storyline’s goofy contortions, which come courtesy of book writer Catherine Johnson. Her tale of a bride-to-be who reads her mother’s diaries — and invites three men to her Greek-island wedding who might be her father — cleverly strings together many of ABBA’s best known songs in a way that (mostly) makes sense. Such characters as Sophie, the bride, and Donna, the mother, have become indelible over the years, and sometimes I forget that they weren’t original creations of ABBA. Director Dan Pessano helps the storyline fly by without making it seem too ridiculous, which is an accomplishment.
Emily Pessano is polished and poignant as Donna. Pessano sings here in a lower range than usual, and the result is a husky maturity to the sound that works well. Donna is mostly grumpy throughout the show — and who wouldn’t be, with three former boyfriends all showing up at the same time, right in the middle of plans for her daughter’s wedding? — but she also has to embrace her tender side as well. You should be in tears (or close to it) in the song “Slipping Through My Fingers,” which in the show becomes an anthem for parents watching their children grow up, and Pessano executes the moment perfectly.
Kay Wilkins is a standout as Rosie. With crisp comic timing and a strong voice, Wilkins is one of those performers who seems in the moment every second she’s on stage. When she and the amiable Bill Austin (nicely played by Nicholas Nunez) are together, the sparks fly.
Caitlyn Lopez, as Sophie, and Steven San Sebastian, as Sky, have some nice moments together. Again, their relationship isn’t exactly nuanced, given the flimsiness of the book, but Lopez and San Sebastian connect on more than a superficial level. Every time I’ve seen San Sebastian on stage in various GCP productions, he seems more comfortable and confident with each one, and this show is my favorite performance of his so far. (I love how enthusiastic he is when he’s hopping around in snorkeling gear in “Lay All Your Love on Me.”)
I wanted more chemistry between Donna, Rosie and Tanya (played by Paige Parker). The rapport among the trio was tentative at the performance I saw. Their choreographed numbers didn’t feel carefree (in fact, Parker looked a little grim at times). In “Does Your Mother Know,” which should be an exhilarating high point of the show, Parker couldn’t find the sweet spot between haughty rich gal and raucous party girl. (Her dancing, along with Alex Figueroa’s Pepper, was impressive, however.)
The three “dads” all have strengths (and two have weaknesses). Bill Johnson, as Harry, has a commanding presence. (“Our Last Summer,” a duet with Donna, is too high for him, however. It might have been worth it to try to bring it down an octave.) Teddy Maldonado, as Sam, delivers his usual gorgeous tenor voice in “Knowing Me, Knowing You.” But overall, his characterization felt subdued and detached. Sam should show more of the charisma that so obviously hooked Donna long ago.
Caitlyn Lopez does not have the kind of voice I expect from Sophie. Perhaps that’s an unfair assumption to bring into the show, but I can’t help my reaction: When I think of Sophie, I anticipate a light, floating vocal tone. Lopez has a powerful voice, but also a pronounced vibrato that doesn’t always quite find the right pitch, and the result can be distracting.
The design of the show is nice. Kaye Migaki’s choreography is slick (and the dancers perform with gusto), Ginger Kay Lewis-Reed’s costumes are peppy, and in terms of complicated staging, “Gimme, Gimme, Gimme” and “Voulez Vous” are sharp. (The one flat number for me is the nightmare sequence of “Under Attack.” The black-light effect from designers Joielle Adams and Evan Commins’ lighting design is notable, but too much of the scene just seemed to be people dressed in black running around in the dark.) In a highlight, GCP teamed with Broadway Media Distribution, a global company based in Fresno, to provide scenic projections, which helped create an island ambiance.
Final thoughts: “Mamma Mia” has a lot of heart and sparkle. I’m not quite able to say this GCP production is a winner that takes it all, but if you’re willing to fall under the ABBA spell, you’ll be singing “Dancing Queen” for weeks.
“Mamma Mia,” through May 20, Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater, 1228 N. Wishon Ave., Fresno. Tickets are $32-$60.
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