“Mamma Mia” brings 70s Nostalgia to Matunuck

The cast of MAMMA MIA! now playing at Theatre By The Sea thru July 21, 2018. Photos by Steven Richard Photography.

By Kimberly Rau

Theatre by the Sea’s second show this summer is the Abba-fueled musical Mamma Mia, and while the show is fun, with its retro tunes and rom-com story lines, the plot is also downright strange at times.

We have Sophie, the-20 year-old bride to be who seems to be making a big deal about two things: The fact that she’s a virgin and the fact that she’s read her mother’s diary and, after a lifetime of not having a father at all, has decided to invite her mother’s three lovers from the summer of ’79 to her nuptials in hopes of performing some kind of “at first sight” paternity test. The three men inexplicably show, much to the confusion of Sophie’s intended, Sky. “I’ve told you before, Sophie, you don’t need a dad,” he whines. “You have me now.” 

It doesn’t help that the groom seems far more interested in “dropping pants” at his bachelor party with his wetsuit-clad friends (yes really) than doing anything else. 

But it’s got disco music, and that seems to be what redeems it for most of the audience. Even if some of the song placement is bizarre. (I don’t care if it includes the line “I talked to your mother,” the tune “What’s the Name of the Game” is not, in any way, a father-daughter ballad.) And there’s a particularly freaky dream sequence at the top of Act 2 where the potential dads, dressed sort of like the Village People, dance around with white sheets. 

I don’t remember the movie being this trippy, but maybe Meryl Streep was enough of a distraction. And there’s plenty of distraction here as well. The set is gorgeous, the dancers are extremely talented, the musical team is perfection and in case you haven’t heard, the barn theater still has air conditioning and there are new bathrooms, too, so your intermission experience is going to be a treat as well.

This is the part where I discuss the cast, and I feel like I need to put in a disclaimer here. The night I was able to see the show, it was like all of the energy had been sucked out of the room. Almost no one seemed to be into it, which was a shame, because after bows (there’s a multiple song encore/dance off worth staying for), the entire cast came alive and I could hear how talented they were. However, other people I have talked to said that was not their experience, so I am hesitant to paint the entire show with a broad brush. The evening I saw was difficult. Your experience will probably be different.

Having said that, the cast itself is hit or miss. Malia Monk is fresh out of college, so she’s the right age for Sophie, but seems unsure of herself in such a large role. Her voice is sweet, but she seems tentative with her fellow cast, which makes for a certain lack of connection with the supposed love of her life. These purported soul mates have very little chemistry. Erica Mansfield plays Donna, Sophie’s mother, an independent woman/independent business owner who can’t seem to grasp that her daughter isn’t exactly like her. Perhaps she gets it from one of her mystery dads. Who knows? Mansfield definitely has the vocal chops for the role but seemed to be holding back except on a few specific power ballads. I would have liked to see more from her, but overall, she’s a nice pick for the role and I enjoyed watching her. Her two friends, Tanya and Rosie, played by Tari Kelly and Jeanette Bayardelle, respectively, are also an excellent addition, both to the plot and to the cast. I found myself watching Kelly in any dance number she happened to be in, as her talent and precision are captivating, and she’s extremely funny too. And lucky for us, Bayardelle has some of the funniest moments in the show. “Take a Chance on Me,” the number where Rosie decides one of Donna’s exes might be a good match for her wit, is a hoot and really livens up the second act. 

As for the fathers, Christopher Carl plays Harry, a wealthy British banker who swears he used to be cool. Carl is especially funny when he embraces Harry’s awkwardness, making a smaller role quite endearing. Al Bundonis as confirmed bachelor for life Bill has a great connection with Mansfield. And finally, there’s Sam, well played by David Elder, who really has Donna’s heart. 

Is this a smash hit? That might be coming later this season. Is it fun? Yes, and there’s a lot to be said for that. Come for the beautiful sets (well done, Kyle Dixon) and choreography (also by director Kevin P. Hill), stay for the tunes, and ignore the plot. This is fluffy summer fun and just the right kind of escape.

“Mamma Mia!” runs through July 21 at Theatre by the Sea, 364 Cards Pond Rd., Wakefield, R.I. Tickets start at $52 and may be obtained by calling 401.782.8587, or online at theatrebythesea.com.

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