Theatre review: Mamma Mia! at Neptune

Alison J Palmer | Mamma Mia Review

ABBA musical entertains with disco and spectacle.

Posted By  on Mon, Apr 16, 2018 at 4:39 PM

Mamma Mia is a 1999 ABBA jukebox musical. The plot follows Sophie (Cynthia Smithers), on the eve of her wedding to Sky (Jahlen Barnes), as she brings together the three men who could be her biological father, unbeknownst to her mother, Donna (Julie Martell).

Smithers brings a beautiful voice to her portrayal of Sophie, although she frequently struggled to maintain my interest. Her movements and emotions felt mechanical, shallow and inconsistent, making it difficult to invest in her plot. A problem with Mamma Mia is that Sophie’s wedding feels like a MacGuffin in order to put Donna’s story in motion.

Let’s focus on some specific musical numbers: “Under Attack,” while somewhat forgettable musically, is a gorgeous movement piece which is a synthesis between lighting design (Leigh-Ann Vardy), costume design (Bonnie Deakin) and choreography (Ray Hogg). Lighting in general is gorgeous in this show—from simple neon backdrops to more abstract designs like in “Under Attack,” the design is cohesive and chooses carefully when it brings attention to itself.

“Lay All Your Love On Me” is an example of this show’s worst, but that’s still not terrible. "Barnes’ Sky," while perfectly adequately performed, is deeply bland as a character, but that's more of a script problem than an actor problem.

Back-to-back performances “Chiquitita” and “Dancing Queen” give you the best of this show. Karen Burthwright’s Rosie is joyful and energized. She honestly looks like she’s having the time of her life. Paired with Burthwright most of the show is Tonya (Alison J. Palmer), a fab-as-heck three-time divorcee. Palmer deserves a Merritt, if not for her acting, then for the fact that she danced disco for two-and-a-half hours in five-inch heels. Palmer and Burthwright have very physically demanding performances, and the comedy they create with their bodies (particularly in “Dancing Queen” and “Take a Chance on Me,” respectively) is gold.

As a rule, the dialogue and plot of Mamma Mia are its weakest aspects. Once all the exposition is out of the way, the viewing experience improves dramatically. I identified four locals in the production, both relegated to understudy and ensemble roles. Shoutout to Deborah Castrilli and her incredible table dancing I can only assume is due to some kind of witchcraft, and Celia Koughan, 
David Light and Kirsten Howell.

I’d like to give a hand to Jeremy Webb for his tactful land acknowledgement. The tension radiating from white people sitting in $90 seats was palpable as they considered that everything they’ve ever had is a direct benefit from genocide and displacement, to which I say “good, feel bad.”

Overall, Mamma Mia is far from perfect, but undeniably impressive.