Theatre Review: ‘Mamma Mia!” at Aurora Theatre/Ferst Center

The cast of Mamma Mia! (Photos by Chris Bartelski)

It starts small, just as the musical group ABBA did. A 20-year-old girl named Sophie (Hannah Church) sits on the steps of her mother’s inn in Greece and quietly sings “I Have a Dream.” She’s dreaming of happiness: marrying her fiancé, knowing who her father is, nothing too radical.

Then, bam! We’re suddenly into Aurora Theatre’s “Mamma Mia!” with all its irresistible songs, fun, zaniness, and color. Justin Anderson directs; musical direction by Ann-Carol Pence; choreography by Ricardo Aponte. The show runs at Aurora’s home base through April 22, pauses a month, then resumes its run at the 1000-seat Ferst Center for the Arts at Georgia Tech, June 9-24.

There is good news and bad news. The show is apparently sold out for its entire run at Aurora Theatre in Lawrenceville and has been almost from day one. The good news is that tickets are available for the GA Tech run, but even there I would not delay in getting tickets. You can check the Aurora website for any unforeseen situations.

“Mamma Mia!” is a hit (14 years on Broadway, despite not winning a single Tony Award) because it makes people feel good—period. Lord knows in these days of constant political drama and hijinks people need to feel good. You can bemoan the wacky plot and diss the music of ABBA all you want. The moment that peppy overture starts, people perk up and start smiling. I’ve seen this happen every time touring companies play the Fox Theatre.

We’re on a Greek island (I feel better already). Sophie, as mentioned, wants to marry her fiancé Sky (Nick Arapoglou), and she wants her father (whoever he is) to walk her down the aisle. After perusing her free-spirited mother Donna’s (Kristin Markiton) diary, she learns it’s probably one of three dashing men: Bill Austin (Travis Smith); Harry Bright (Greg Frey); and Sam Carmichael (Chris Kayser). Sophie invites them all to the wedding, without telling Donna.

Meanwhile, mom Donna invites her two best friends, Tanya (Terry Henry) and Rosie (Marcie Millard). The three women used to be in a girls’ group called Donna and the Dynamos; and they still have that performing gene. In addition , there are plenty of attractive young men (Atarius Armstrong, Joe Arnotti, Luke Badura, Jonathan Bryant, Matthew Morris, Joseph Pendergrass and others) to serve as groomsmen and catnip for the ladies.

Sophie has invited her besties as well: Alexandra Karr and Sarah Elaine, and they add to the fun.

The music and lyrics (and let’s face it, the songs are the real stars of “Mamma Mia!”) are by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, with some songs by Stig Anderson; book by Catherine Johnson. Have you danced to any of these: “Dancing Queen,” “Super Trooper,” “Honey, Honey,” “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” “S.O.S.,” “The Winner Takes It All,” “Voulez-Vous,” and many others? If you’re a person of a certain age, you have cut the rug with some of these songs at an 80’s disco. Admit it.

Set design is by Julie Ray; some out-of-this-world costumes by Alan Yeong; lighting by Kevin Frazier.

This show is essentially critic-proof and award proof: many years on Broadway; a rousing 2008 movie starring Meryl Streep (every now and then Ms. Streep likes to prove she can do anything, and she can. The film grossed half a billion dollars).

Hannah Church is charming as Sophie; so is Nick Arapoglou. Travis Smith, usually a leading man, gets to indulge in some comic hijinks, aided by Marcie Millard, an expert comic actress. Kristin Markiton, who got to blossom as Francesca in Aurora’s “The Bridges of Madison County,” is a bit puzzling here: Her Donna seems wistful, contemplative, even sad at times. I know her daughter’s getting married, but Donna is a life force, a dynamo (like her girl group title), and she should swing for the fences. Fortunately, Ms. Markiton has an incredible singing voice and Donna comes more fully to life when she uses it.

For the ensemble: Never think the audience isn’t watching you. Case in point—I’m guessing that Luke Badura is probably the youngest member in the cast; but he is dynamic, a terrific dancer, and has that “je ne sais quoi” that makes one stand out. He is fun to watch, and “Mamma Mia!” is first, last, and always about fun. Act II seems to have more pace and pizazz than Act I, and that’s good because that’s what the audience leaves with.

When leaving the theatre, my companion for the evening said, “This show is some spicy meatball.” It is. Get those tickets for Georgia Tech; I have a strong feeling “Mamma” will rock the house there.

For tickets and information, visit auroratheatre.com.

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