September 29, 2019 | Dr. Jeff List
I know I’m a little late to the game when it comes to seeing Mamma Mia! at the Midland Center For The Arts, in collaboration with Bay City Players and Pit & Balcony But I’m glad I made it.. This show feels like a celebration, and is so much fun. The elements - acting, lights, costumes, and the music - work together so expertly, and I’d like to share a few of the magnificent moments.
The first moment that I would like to highlight that gives a good perspective on the strength of the show is the opening of the second act. The dream sequence, “Under Attack” highlights a strength of the show, Karly Laskowski as the determined Sophie. She is tremendous throughout the show, but “Under Attack” shows how well she can act through song. She doesn’t lose a note when confronted with her own decisions and is face to face with them, feeling desperate and trapped. Laskowski shows tremendous skill as a singer and “chops” as an actor. “Under Attack” also shows how well choreographed the whole show is, led by Choreographer Jennifer Hopkins and Assistant Choreographer Kaitlin Brunette. Hopkins’ attention to detail becomes evident in how each actor has a role in “Under Attack” and the roles complement each other without unnecessary duplication. Even in the full company numbers, like “I Do, I Do, I Do,” the choreography supports the action and provides fun moments that will draw audible response form the audience. “Under Attack” sets the stage for a more personal, but equally powerful second act.
Vocally, Holly Booth, as the fiercely independent Donna, gives a highlight of the night in “The Winner Takes It All.” Booth displays her powerful vocals and gives a striking performance as she laments her past broken relationship with Sam. She is conflicted and hurt and it all comes out in the song. Like Laskowski, she gives a strong performance throughout. She follows her journey and does a great job bringing the audience along with her. Booth gives Donna strength and vulnerability, which makes for a compelling character.
I’d do everyone a disservice if I didn’t mention my favorite scene - the tête-à-tête flirting between Rosie, played by Ann Russell-Lutenske, and Bill, plated by Bill Adamo. This scene, including the song “Take A Chance On Me,” is such fun. The playful seduction breaks the tension from the previous scenes in how many laughs it brings. Russell-Lutenske and Adamo show great chemistry and seem to have such fun performing it. When the actors have fun, it is easier for the audience to have fun with them.
I think “Money, Money, Money,” in addition to bringing strong vocals and choreography, shows the strength of the technical elements of the show. The lights during the number are fabulous, thanks to Scenic Designer Evan Lewis and Lighting Designer Peggy Mead-Finizio. The set is beautifully Greek. And it gives the actors levels and acting areas to support the action. The lighting, particularly in “Money, Money, Money,” adds to the celebratory feel of the entire production. The lighting elevates the dance numbers and focuses the audience’s attention in between. “Money, Money, Money” also shows how well the actors work together. In particular, Booth as Donna, Russell-Lutenske as Rosie, and Natalie Slawnyk as Tanya, work well together. The three work cohesively when together. An audience member can see the relationships between the three and the fun they are having. Special Kudos to Costume Designer Courtney Anderson Brown for the Donna and the Dynamos costumes.
I’ve gone this far and not mentioned the direction. In this instance, I mean it as a considered compliment. Director Tommy Wedge, Music Director Jim Hohmeyer, and Assistant Director Laura Brigham put together a beautiful production. The show maintains a fluidity in pacing, with much credit going to Hohmeyer. The music supports the action, enhances the action, but never dominates the action. There is no forced or arbitrary blocking; character movement is both meaningful and motivated. Outside of a couple sight gags - which hit with the audience - the show lacked contrivances that felt like they were out of the flow of the action. The actors knew their stories and the journeys their characters take. Wedge appears to have done a great job attending to details - each ensemble member is individually invested in the action; they have their own reactions. Overall, the show feels natural and not directed, which is a high compliment to the directing team.