Theater Review: MAMMA MIA! (25th Anniversary Tour)

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by Dan Zeff on November 8, 2023

in Theater-International,Theater-Regional,Theater-San Diego


The theater-going public may never get enough of Mamma Mia! Since the Swedish musical opened in London in 1999 there have been 50 productions throughout the world and the international audience now exceeds 65 million. The ABBA-based musical is playing a one week visit to San Diego and judging by the reaction from the full house yesterday, November 7 at the San Diego Civic Theatre, the show has lost none of its appeal, especially for the many groups of young female viewers who cheered every song from “Chiquitta” to “Voulez-Vous.”

Grant Reynolds (Sky) and the Company

For those who have been out of touch with musical theater for the last quarter of a century, Mamma Mia! unfolds on a Greek island. American expatriate Donna Sheridan operates a small taverna on the island while raising her daughter, Sophie. The narrative revolves around Sophie’s attempt to identify her real father. From reading her mother’s diary, Sophie discovers that her father could be one of three men who had relationships with Donna nine months before Sophie’s birth. Sophie invites the three men — Bill Austin, Harry Bright, and Sam Carmichael — to her wedding, hoping to discover which one is her true dad.

Jalynn Steele (Tanya), Christine Sherrill (Donna), and Carly Sakolove (Rosie)

Agreed, this is a tenuous storyline on which to erect a full-length musical, but book author Catherine Johnson has done a noble job of injecting 22 ABBA songs by Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson into her tale. Although all the songs were written separately, Johnson makes them fit naturally into the story. The unaware spectator could easily accept that the songs were actually composed as a cohesive score specifically for the show.

Christine Sherrill (Donna) and the Company

The ABBA hits are all there, from the title song to “Waterloo,” “Thank You for the Music,” “Money, Money, Money,” “The Winner Takes It All,” “SOS,” and “Take a Chance on Me.” The megahit of the score is “Dancing Queen,” first sung during the opening act and then as the major number in the star-spangled finale. “Dancing Queen” drew a frenzied reaction from the 1999 opening night London audience and immediately cemented Mamma Mia! as a musical that would be around for a long, long time (it is now the sixth longest-running show in West End history).

Jim Newman (Bill), Victor Wallace (Sam), and Rob Marnell (Harry)

What really elevates this production into a genuine must-see show are the performances by Christine Sherrill as Donna and Alisa Melendez (a native of nearby Carlsbad) as Sophie. Both have expressive, powerful voices and strong acting chops and their mother-daughter conflict near the end of the show is stirring and credible. As the three men in Donna’s past, Rob Marnell (Harry Bright), Jim Newman (Bill Austin), and Victor Wallace (Sam Carmichael) do what they can with paper thin roles.

Alisa Melendez (Sophie) and Christine Sherrill (Donna)

I had difficulties with Jalynn Steele and Carly Sakolove as Donna’s girlfriends Tanya and Rosie respectively. Granted the characters are in the show primarily for comic relief, but they would be funnier and if they took their feet off the slapstick pedal and just let the comedy flow naturally.

 Jalynn Steele (Tanya), Carly Sakolove (Rosie), Christine Sherrill (Donna)

The show’s motor is driven by Anthony Van Laast’s choreography, a rousing series of production numbers executed with inexhaustible enthusiasm and precision by the youthful chorus. Howard Harrison’s lighting designs created a series of stunning visual images. A seven-piece band laid down a solid soft rock accompaniment. Phyllida Lloyd is the director, Mark Thompson is the production designer, and Andrew Bruce and Bobby Aitken are the sound designers.

Alisa Melendez (Sophie) and the Company

I have been an unapologetic Mamma Mia! idolator since I first saw the show almost 20 years ago. I have always been impressed with how much more ambitious artistically it was than it needed to be. The production could have coasted solely on the ABBA music and tossed Brown’s story, but then I suspect it wouldn’t have lasted 25 years and counting.

Jalynn Steele (Tanya), Christine Sherrill (Donna), Carly Sakolove (Rosie)

photos by Joan Marcus

The Company

Mamma Mia!
National Tour
ends November 12 at the San Diego Civic Theatre, 1100 3rd Ave
for tickets ($39-$169), visit Broadway SD
tour continues; for dates and cities, visit Mamma Mia! The Tour
for worldwide dates and cities, visit Mamma Mia!

Patrick Park (Pepper), Jalynn Steele (Tanya) and the Company
 L’Oréal Roaché (Lisa), Alisa Melendez (Sophie), Haley Wright (Ali)
Grant Reynolds (Sky) and Alisa Melendez (Sophie)

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