Susan Haefner, Torsiglieri, and Jean McCormick sing during a scene of the Northern Stage production.
(Robert C. Strong II Photo)
By Sharon Groblicki, Standard Correspondent
Mamma Mia! What’s not to like? Northern Stage’s delightful romp through the music of ABBA had me aesthetically and spiritually transcended. So, yes, everything you have heard about this production is true. The talented and versatile ensemble is absolutely delightful, the choreography innovative and energetic, the set wonderfully engaging, the characters loveable and believable, and the band superb. In a talk with the actors after the show, one audience member said she had seen a number (but I forget the number – six or eight, I think) of productions of this show, including one on Broadway and this was by far the best one she had seen.
I had never seen a production or even the movie of this show, nor do I know any of ABBA’s hits, so I had categorized the show as a piece of fluff (or, worse yet, camp) and had been prepared to skip this one, but then I encountered people who do not speak in superlatives raving about the show and I consequently entered upon the experience with joyful expectation. It was even better than that. I was expecting ice cream and I got a super duper sundae with all the trimmings.
ABBA, for those of you who don’t know, was a popular singing group from Sweden who were possibly the most popular non-English speaking singing group worldwide in the years between 1972 when they formed and 1982 when they broke up. The musical was written by British playwright Catherine Johnson with music and lyrics by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus (who wrote ABBA’s songs) with additional songs by Sig Anderson.
What puts this production over the top is the vision of Producing Artistic Director Carol Dunne. She has seen the vehicle as having possibilities that most jukebox musicals do not. “It delivers characters we care about and tells a story with heart and humor,” she says in her press release. But what the script and the characters have is the potential for creating a believable story with people we care about. It takes artistic vision and integrity to make that happen because, basically, these are stock characters.
The first thing that draws the audience into a relationship with the characters is the set. The intimacy of the space in the Barrette Center transports the audience to the taverna on the Greek Island where the story takes place. Details, like the rust from the iron railings faintly discoloring the white with blue trim and the hanging plants, took me back to my favorite Greek Island. There were traditional Greek buildings with lights the go on and off to show time passing (and my favorite lighting cue was during the overture when three lights came on one at a time, perfectly timed with three notes of the score). Lighting showing sunrises and sunsets, not only contribute to the audience’s involvement as though we were really there, but were exactly as I remembered them in Greece. Sometimes the reflection of the sea waters rippled on the walls of the taverna.
So we are drawn in immediately by the plot in which young brideto- be Sophia finds, in her mother’s diary, the identities of three men who might possibly be her father and invites them all to the wedding, unbeknownst to her mother, Donna. A free spirit who is proud of having raised Sophia on her own, Donna has deemed it unimportant who Sophia’s father is. Sophia, however, wants her father to walk her down the aisle.
Every detail of the production contributes to our loving and caring about these outrageous characters and their lives. The choreography, for example, while absolutely stunning in the production numbers is tempered during the characters’ solos to make these songs (most of which existed before the plot) so much a part of the story line that the audience feels as though the songs were written for this show.
The lead actors, Clare Howes Eisentrout as Sophia and Anne Torsiglieri as Donna carry the audience through the show because we care about them. Eisentrout is as amazing a dancer as she is a singer and actress. She captures us with her spirit and integrity and clear, true soprano voice. There is no artifice in her performance. Her ability to love the audience and have it love her in return is one of the things that lead to the level of joy the audience feels. Torsiglieri is feisty and real, and her songs powerfully and passionately delivered. In a scene where she has her leg up over a railing, cleaning a difficultto- reach spot, she encounters one of the men from her past and the song begins with a humorous take on the awkward moment and shifts as she encounters all the emotions such a situation would bring.
The three potential dads, Bill, the affable Australian, played by Eric Bunge, Sam, the American, played by Mark Epperson, and Harry, the stodgy Brit, played by Kurt Zischke were all sincere, funny and loveable. Each had a great singing voice that fit his character and each had the skills to keep his character from being a caricature. They all danced well and with great timing.
Donna’s friends, Tanya and Rosie, played by Played by Susan Haefner and Jean McCormick, respectively, were fun and funny, sang up a storm and danced with style and pizazz. While Haefner was outrageous and over-the-top in her portrayal of Tanya, McCormick was more tempered and intellectual. Pascal Pastrama, who plays Sophia’s fiancé did an amazing job in a difficult role that is almost inconsequential to the plot (a groom is a groom is a groom) but lent sincerity and passion, and most of all, love to his portrayal. He could blend into the boys’ ensemble, carrying his singing and dancing as well as any when it was called for, and then extract himself to be the loving fiancée.
And the ensemble! The ensemble! They were all as talented and wonderful as it is possible to be. They were amazing dancers and singers, and the audience could not get enough of them. Each member of the ensemble was an individual as well as a well-tuned member of the ensemble and they all took the audience over the top.
It would have been impossible not to be part of the standing ovation. There is no way any able person in the audience could not rise with joy and applause at the end, but we were rewarded with two more over-the-top production numbers with the characters recostumed and resplendent. The actors danced with the audience and no wedding ever, no Christmas party, no occasion in real life ever held such joy.
Don’t miss this show!
This article first appeared in the May 4, 2017 edition of the Vermont Standard.