Thursday, February 21, 2019

Mamma Mia!

Warning: This post contains plot spoilers for the show.

Since closing on Broadway in 2015, Mamma Mia!, the jukebox musical written around the songs of the Swedish pop group ABBA, has been making the rounds in various theaters around Long Island. I remember they did a production at the Smithtown PAC, and I'm pretty sure they did one a year or two ago at the Gateway in Bellport, too.

And why not? Who wouldn't want to see a happy show full of ABBA music, now that it was being featured in our own backyard?

My family, that's who!

OK, my son doesn't care about any musical, ever. But I've been trying to get my wife and my daughter interested in going with me, with no success at all. I actually think my daughter might like it if she gave it a chance. But she just sees it as goofy, and won't even hear me out when I try to talk to her about it.

As for my wife, if memory serves, I think she might have seen part of the movie version when I watched it on Netflix. And for some strange reason, watching Pierce Brosnan try to croak out ABBA songs did nothing to help my case with her.

So when my daughter, her boyfriend and I saw Pippin at the CM Performing Arts Center in Oakdale last month, and I noticed that Mamma Mia! was their next upcoming show, I tried again, to no avail, to talk my daughter and/or my wife into seeing the show with me. Then I finally said "To heck with it!" (only I said it in a less PG-13 way), and decided that if I got the chance, I'd go and see it myself.

I looked it up on the website about two weeks ago, just intending to pick a potential date to go. But when I saw that there was a Wednesday matinee show with an open aisle seat in the first row of the theater, I immediately jumped on it and bought the ticket.

As it turned out, the snowstorm last week cause me to reschedule a short meeting that had been originally scheduled from last Tuesday to today. However, I was able to schedule it for the late morning, giving me more than enough time to make the 2PM opening curtain.

The last I had seen a weather report, there was snow scheduled for tonight, for much later than the time the show would let out. However, as I drove towards my meeting in Melville, I saw that all of the signs on the LIE warned of winter weather this afternoon. My car drives horribly in the snow, so this was a concern.

When I reached my destination, I checked in with Denise, who told me that we were only supposed to be looking at one-to-three inches. She thought I'd probably be OK. Still I was a little wary.

I left my meeting at a little after noon, and started driving towards Oakdale. As soon as I did so, a light snow began to fall.

I pulled into the strip mall where the theater is, and parked my car as close as I could. I didn't want to be sliding around too much if it was slippery when I came out after the show. Then I parked myself at a Thai/Chinese restaurant a few doors away from the theater, and kept a cautious eye on the weather. I'd eat the ticket if I had too -- it wasn't that expensive. But I really didn't want to. I figured I'd be unlikely to get such a great seat again.

As I sat looking out the window, I saw a van from The Arbors assisted living program pull up to the theater. I laughed to myself, thinking about the group from the nursing home who had only made it halfway through Spring Awakening at the Argyle Theater last week. I thought to myself that Mamma Mia! was probably going to be more to this crowd's liking.

By 1:30, I decided that the snowfall was light enough to risk it, so I moseyed on over to the theater. By this time, the lobby was packed, so I had to hack my way around the crowd to get to the restrooms on the other side. Having taken care of business, I then bought myself a bottled water, and I was ready for the show.

The theater was mostly full. However, the seat right next to me stayed empty, so as the lights went down, I put my coat there.

Now, I've had some problems with the sound in this theater in the past. I remember the sound for Pippin last month as not being too bad. And likewise when my family attended a production of Beauty and the Beast during the holiday season of 2017. But when I saw my niece in a children's production of Peter Pan there, it was pretty rough, and when I saw Jekyll and Hyde there shortly after that, it was a real problem. So I figured that sitting in the first row, I should be able to hear everything perfectly.

Imagine my surprise, then, when Emily Sarra as Sophie started singing the first number, and I could barely understand a word of it! And the couple of scenes that followed, which basically explained the whole plot of the show, were similarly muddled. If I hadn't been familiar with the plot of the show, I would have had no idea what was going on, except that they were planning for the main character's wedding.

As the show went on, the sound improved somewhat, and certain actors were able to project better than others. But it was still a very mixed bag.

I thought that maybe it was me. All of these years of attending loud rock shows without wearing ear plugs has definitely taken a toll on my hearing. And I'm at a point in my life where I tend to always have the subtitles turned on when I watch TV, because my hearing isn't what it used to be. On the other hand, I just saw Spring Awakening last Friday night, and I didn't have any real trouble hearing that show.

At intermission, I leaned over to the couple sitting to my left, and asked them were they having any trouble hearing the show. They both laughed, and said that yes. They explained that this has been a longstanding problem at this theater, and that the theater is aware of it. As they put it, the problem is the theater's PA "sucks", and that as PA's are expensive, they haven't been able to get a new one. I was honestly relieved to find out it wasn't just me.

It's unfortunate, because I really like this theater. It's comfortable, and whoever makes the schedule there seems to pick a lot of shows I'm interested in seeing. Over the last few years, I've gone to see a bunch of them, and there were several more that tempted me. Its also very reasonably priced, and is more conveniently located for me than any other theater on Long Island, except for the Gateway. I'll definitely go back to the CM again. But this sound thing is a real issue that sometimes really detracts from my enjoyment of their shows.

So, onto Mamma Mia! As musicals go, I'll admit it's a bit of a lightweight. I don't think it's as good a show as Pippin, or even as Spring Awakening (although the latter play clearly isn't for everyone.) This is partly due to the fact that although I like ABBA, Mamma Mia! doesn't have nearly as consistent a musical score as the two other shows I mentioned. It's also partially due to the book. As a jukebox musical, the story has been written around the songs instead of vice versa. And more importantly, there are aspects of the writing that just don't work for me. I've always felt like the character of Donna, Sophie's mother, is a little inconsistent. And the ending of the show, where Donna and Sam decide to get married after they only just reconciled about five minutes earlier feels ridiculously rushed, and was clearly only written that way to give the show a happy ending.

Nevertheless, it's not a bad night's (or in this case, day's) entertainment. The Sophie character is delightful, as flawed and immature as she is, and the story of her quest to find her father is realistic and touching. And while some of the songs are a little weak, let's face it -- as a show-stopper, "Dancing Queen" is pretty damned great. (The song was a #1 hit for ABBA almost everywhere in the world). Yes, the show might be filled with empty calories, but if done well, it will probably make you leave a theater with a smile on your face. (I recently commiserated with a fellow musical theater lover on the Sputnik Music website about my family's lack of interest in the show, and his response was "Anyone who can't enjoy Mamma Mia! can't enjoy life.")

So here are my thoughts on the production. Outside of the sound problems, it was pretty good. Emily Sarra's voice is kind of pretty, but a little light -- she was probably the actor I had the most trouble hearing. That being said, she did a lot of things well here. She did a great job in capturing the vivacious and coquettish nature of the character, and in portraying her immaturity and occasional selfishness as well. More importantly, she gave the audience a glimpse of how much Sophie has missed having a father in her life, so that even though some of her actions are a little self-centered, you can see the little girl who dreams about an ideal father-figure at her core. Consequently, she remains a likable and sympathetic character.

Cheryl Fontana as Donna gave perhaps the most complete performance of the show. Her version of "The Winner Takes It All" was one of the highlights of the day. As I stated earlier, I don't feel that her character is that well written -- some of her choices are a bit jarring (such as suddenly deciding that the perfect moment to tell her daughter that she doesn't know which of the three possible men is Sophie's actual father right as she's about to take her wedding vows, after keeping this secret for 21 years). However, the actress did a fine job with the role she was given.

The rest of the cast ranged from capable to very good. I particularly liked Mark T. Cahill as Harry, and I thought that Terry Brennan (as Rosie) and Carl Tese (as Bill) had one of the most enjoyable numbers of the show together with their version of "Take a Chance on Me". And although it's not a huge role, I liked Hans Paul Hendrickson's decision to play Sophie's fiance Sky as kind of an amiable goofball. As for Samantha Rosario and Adrianna M. Scheer as Sophie's two best friends Ali and Lisa, I was kind of sorry that the play doesn't really give them much to do, as I really liked their dancing.

I don't have a lot to say about Patrick Grossman's directing. It was enjoyable show, and other than the sound problems (which had nothing to do with him), there was nothing noticeably wrong, so that tells me he did a decent job.

The music for the show was live this time (unlike the music for Pippin last month). This was good, but it tended to exacerbate the theater's sound problems -- it seems that it's harder to turn down eight or ten exuberant musicians when they're drowning out the actors than it is to turn down canned music.

I liked the set a lot. (So kudos again to Grossman, who is the show's set designer as well.)

And once again, while I'm no expert on dance, I really liked Ashley Nicastro's choreography.

At the end of the show, just as they did in the Broadway version, the entire cast came out for an encore of "Mamma Mia", "Dancing Queen" and "Waterloo", which really finished the day off on a high note. A good percentage of the mostly-full house seemed to be made up of the residents of various assisted-living facilities for the elderly and group homes for the developmentally disabled, and everyone seemed to be leaving the theater in a happy and excited mood. Several young people who seemed to be students enjoying their week off from school talked enthusiastically about how much they had enjoyed the day's entertainment.

Mamma Mia!, which is the first show of the CM Performing Arts Center's new season, continues running through March 23. The next show on their schedule, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, is another show I'm interested in seeing. It opens on April 6.