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Review: StageWorks Fresno’s ‘Mamma Mia’ sizzles under the summer sun

THEATER REVIEW

StageWorks Fresno ran into a little problem on Friday night. It’s one that any theater company would kill to have: So many people showed up at the box office that the show had to start about 15 minutes late.

Such is the drawing power of “Mamma Mia.” Audiences are more than willing to take a chance on this ABBA-infused musical, and with this production, they’ll be glad they did.

Pictured above: Donna and the Dynamos (played by Valerie Rachelle, left, Amalie Larsen and Ethel Birrell) come back to life in ‘Mamma Mia.’ Photo: StageWorks Fresno

The StageWorks Fresno production is big, happy, polished and a lot of fun. (Its biggest flaw is that it needs to be more vocally exuberant in terms of sound; more on that in a moment.) It’s great to see a local show in such a big space. (The Shaghoian Hall has almost 750 seats.) The downside is that the venue is more expensive to rent, and a more ambitious production requires a bigger budget. So instead of a two- or three-weekend run, “Mamma Mia” only has one weekend of performances.

The closing matinee today (2 p.m.) will be popular. Even if you already have tickets, you might want to get there a little early.

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Some thoughts from opening night:

The set is gorgeous. (I’m sure I’m biased because I wrote a preview story focusing on the scenic design.) Johnny Cano’s two-story taverna fills out the somewhat awkward Shaghoian stage with a perfect sense of proportion, turning what could have been a bare feel into a snug, intimate experience.

The direction is crisp and fun. Joel C. Abels finds interesting ways to bring his large, enthusiastic ensemble into the action, and the level of intensity among the supporting cast is impressive. I didn’t see one ensemble member ever look less than confident or not “in the moment.” And through creative pacing in such songs as “The Winner Takes It All,” Abels (and Amalie Larsen, who plays Donna) finds an effective way through soaring vocals and blunt silences to add to the drama of the moment.


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Speaking of Larsen, she’s wonderful. Her belt is strong, her comic timing keen, her sense of frustration and longing palpable. It’s a hard character because Donna is angry for much of the show, but Larsen finds an unflappable optimism even among all the annoyance. I don’t usually think of “One of Us” as one of the most powerful numbers in the show (mostly because “Winner” offers such vocal pyrotechnics), but Larsen really kills it in this production. I was really moved.

The Dynamos deliver. Ethel Birrell (as Rosie) and Valerie Rachelle (as Tanya) are strong, funny, warm and wise. They make “Dancing Queen” a highlight. And Rachelle delivers a first-rate “Does Your Mother Know” with the engaging Pepper (Jordan Taylor).

The Dads are fun. Terry Lewis (as Sam) and Brent Moser (as Bill) likewise have some great moments, including a very strong connection between Sam and Donna.

StageWorks Fresno

Chris Mangels and Amalie Larsen in ‘Mamma Mia.’

Along with Larsen, the standout of the show for me is Chris Mangels as Harry. I’ve seen “Mamma Mia” many times, and Mangels brings something so fresh and new to the character that it made me sit up and notice. His Harry is very nearly pitiable in his shuffling insecurities, and I like it that by the end of the show, he’s only partially come out of his shell rather than succumb to full-blown, Hollywood-style transformation. Plus, Mangels is just plain funny, and he sounds great in “Our Last Summer.”

The young romantic leads didn’t work as well for me. Emily Estep, as Sophie, has a lovely voice in “Thank You for the Music,” but her chemistry with Bryant Howard (as her fiance, Sky) felt flat. Howard has a lot of potential in terms of his acting, and he, too has a very nice voice, but his stage presence needs to be bolder and more defined.


Related story: 5 THINGS TO KNOW: FOR STAGEWORKS FRESNO, SETTING THE SCENE FOR ‘MAMMA MIA’ IS A BIG DEAL
And: EXCITED ABOUT JULY’S BIG THEATER OPENINGS? I’M GIVING AWAY TICKETS TO ALL OF THEM

I was sometimes disappointed in the back-up singing. I wanted more of a “wall of sound” for the ABBA-infused harmonies in the big ensemble numbers. Perhaps this had something to do with the acoustics in the Shaghoian. The volume just wasn’t there, particularly in the first act. And the offstage male vocals were sometimes weak, such as in “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” when the “this time we’re through” response came off wobbly and indistinct.

Vanessa Gonzalez’s choreography: I’m a little mixed here as well. Some of the “Money, Money, Money” moves don’t fit with the dance language of the rest of the show, and a sequence between Sophie and Sky in “Lay All Your Love on Me” feels fussy and out of place. But other numbers soar. The latter part of “All Your Love” delivers the flipper-dance goods. And “Under Attack” is inspired. It features a corps of gals in blinking tutus (Rachel Hibler’s costumes are sharp) and guys spinning swim noodles, all sporting maniacal grins. The dancing and visual pop of the number is stellar.

StageWorks Fresno

Valerie Rachelle, as Tanya, leads the gals of ‘Mamma Mia.’

The lighting is very good, most of the time. I really like the Greek-sun feel. My only major issue with Marc Petros’ design was the overhead lights on the sides of the stage, which kept distracting me in terms of my peripheral vision when they switched off and on. (I also got tired of the purplish-red color wash that often seemed to bathe the taverna; usually I don’t respond negatively to colors in that way, but it stuck out to me.)

The nine-piece pit orchestra adds to the impact. Conductor Tim Fletcher keeps things in sync, with only a few wobbles in terms of matching the musicians (who are offstage) with the vocalists.

The overall take: Impressively big, scrupulously well prepared and enthusiastically presented, this production will certainly scratch your ABBA itch. I applaud the way the Shaghoian seems thoroughly transformed. And many of the performances and vocals soar. It’s sizzling outside in Fresno. And it’s a happy summer sizzle inside Shaghoian Hall as well.


Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

donaldfresnoarts@gmail.com

Comments (3)

  • Jerry Palladino

    Here! Here! Chester and I were in the front row at the Friday opening and enjoyed the show immensely. I have seen Mamma Mia several times over the years, and I was happy that this production stood up to the best of them. Amalie Larsen was a perfect Donna. My only disappointment was with the Sky character. Just not enough. Despite sound problem,s, et al on Friday. it mattered not. ABBA is ABBA. I’ll never tire of this musical.

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  • Amy

    We had a great time. Amalie Larson is fantastic! Only one more chance to see this fun show!

    reply
  • Marn Reich

    They did a marvelous job.

    reply

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