Regional Reviews: San Diego
Also see David's review of Bull in a China Shop
San Diego County has been getting in on the success of the musical this year with two productions of the musical. A staging by Moonlight Stage Productions was produced in Vista last June, and the Welk Resort Theatre is presenting its own version through February 2019, where director Larry Raben and his cast deliver an upbeat tribute to the Swedish band.
Inspired by the Italian movie Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell, a young woman named Sophie (Olivia Hodson) is excited about her upcoming marriage to Sky (Richard Bermudez) on a Greek island (Rory Brown's set makes the location seem like paradise). As Sophie doesn't know anything about her father, she reads the diary of her single mother Donna (Misty Cotton) to find clues to his identity. Posing as her mother, Sophie invites three potential candidates to the wedding: architect Sam (David S. Humphrey), British banker Harry (Mike Bradford), and Australian writer Bill (Lance Arthur Smith). Sophie's plan gets messier than she expects when Donna sees the potential fathers on the island.
Catherine Johnson's book begins with a strong first act that sets up the plot with a lot of hilarious dialogue and likable characters. Act two contains more issues, starting with a section where the plot turns serious for a short period of time. Most of these moments feel sudden and add an unnecessary dramatic tone to the story. The conclusion is also problematic, with major characters making a few big choices that feel rushed. Notwithstanding these flaws, this Mamma Mia! is still an enjoyable musical revue, mainly because of the director Larry Raben.
Raben's direction features the kind of energy often associated with weddings and he keeps up that style for most of the show, infusing as much humor as he can, even during some of the more over-the-top semi-dramatic twists near the conclusion. His work with choreographer Karl Warden even raises the quality of a couple of scenes. A big example is the duet that one of Donna's best friends, Rosie (Nancy Snow Carr), sings with Bill, "Take a Chance on Me." Although Rosie's aggressive sexual advances toward Bill have been rather unpleasant to watch in a few other versions of the show, this particular staging is handled in a charming and humorous way.
Two members of the director's crew, costume designer Winfield Murdock and lighting designer Jennifer Edwards, do a strong job of mixing ordinary visuals with surreal moments. This especially comes into play during a nightmare number, "Under Attack," which pokes fun at Greek mythology. Throughout all these situations, the performers bring their own vocal styles to ABBA's tunes.
Cotton and Hodson share an authentic mother/daughter relationship, which leads to the most impactful serious moment of the plot. Beautifully sung by the leads, "Slipping Through My Fingers" emotionally shows how Sophie and Donna's relationship is about to change. Humphrey, Bradford and Smith bring humor and pathos to their roles, while Carr and Barbara Schoenhofer, the latter as Donna's close friend Tanya, are hilarious whenever they appear. Other supporting players such as Bermudez, Chris Bona and Jake Bradford impress, particularly when they are given the opportunities to sing and dance. Theatregoers should be aware that a few of the stars will be switched out during the run. Natalie Nucci and David Engel are taking over the roles of Donna and Sam around November.
Capturing the musical elements of the narrative is music director/conductor/keyboardist Justin Gray. Gray and his fellow musicians, including keyboardist Michelle Gray and guitarists Tim Fullerton and Joshua Vasquez, perform melodies such as "Honey, Honey," "Money, Money, Money" and "Gimme, Gimme, Gimme" with orchestrations similar to the original songs by Benny Andersson, Björn Ulvaeus, and Stig Anderson. The popular hits are performed wonderfully by the group, and some of their lesser-appreciated singles such as "Our Last Summer" and "Voulez-Vous" are just as catchy.
Johnson's storytelling might have some issues, but Raben's take on the musical is consistently entertaining and fun. If you're a San Diegan and have always wanted to watch Mamma Mia!, you've got plenty of time to catch the run in Escondido.
Mamma Mia, through February 24, 2019, Welk Resort Theatre, 8860 Lawrence Welk Dr, Escondido CA. Performs Sundays through Saturdays. Tickets are $59.00 and can be purchased online at welkresorts.com/san-diego/theatre/ or by phone at 1-888-802-7469.