Review: ‘Mamma Mia!’ at Riverside Center for the Performing Arts

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Riverside Center for the Performing Arts presents  Mamma Mia!, with music and lyrics by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus and book by Catherine Johnson, with some songs by Stig Andersson. Riverside Center is the first theater in the metropolitan area to be granted the rights to present this worldwide hit musical, and with their Broadway-quality productions, I couldn’t think of a better-deserved venue to handle its regional debut. Based on the hit songs written by ABBA, this fun-loving production is a must-see for musical lovers.

Betsy Padamonsky as Donna. Photo courtesy of Riverside Performing Art Center.

As always, the technical elements are reliably top-notch. Penny Ayn Maas directs and choreographs this production, with musical direction by Carson Eubank, who leads an impressive live orchestra. Sound designer and engineer Bethany Galyen ensures that the live music and vocals don’t overwhelm or cancel out each other (a tall order, and one I’ve seen a lot of venues struggle with). Scenic designer DT Willis uses painted backdrops and large mobile set pieces turn the stage into an idyllic Mediterranean taverna, and Michael Jarett sets the scene as lighting designer, matching the musical’s enthusiastic tone cue-to-cue. Costume designer Winfield Murdock has a lot of fun with her pieces, and her quirky, creative 70’s-inspired outfits get a lot of laughs and cheers from the crowd.

It’s the eve of young Sophie’s (Makenzie Mercer Pusey) wedding, and unbeknownst to her harried mother, she has invited three unfamiliar men to the event–one of which is her father. Sophie is determined to find and meet her birth father before her wedding after she learns their names from her mother’s old diary, shown in the bubbly number “Honey, Honey.” One can only imagine how much chaos can come from this choice–which it does, and then some! While the plot can seem fanciful, it’s also fun, which is what this show is all about. This is not a show that you go to for a poignant, thought-provoking experience. However, if you’re looking to let loose with lively song-and-dance numbers and a lot of humor and heart, then this is where you need to be.

The cast, overall, does a great job with the material. Betsy Padamonsky is a perfect fit for the role of Donna Sheridan and shows a mighty vocal range, particularly in her number “The Winner Takes It All.” Grey Garrett and Andrea Kahane get most of the laughs as Donna’s friends Tanya and Rosie. They share the fun, familiar back-and-forth of old friends, and both women really lean into physical humor, which the audience appreciates. The ladies’ highly anticipated number “Dancing Queen” was a fun, nostalgic highlight of the show. Kevin Perry, Gabe Belyeu, and Alan Hoffman lend their talents as the three prospective fathers Sam, Billy, and Harry. The actors all do a fine job in making their characters distinctive, both through mannerisms and accents. Together with Donna, their catchy number “Mamma Mia” (obviously) received eager applause. Andrea Kahane and Gabe Belyeu’s hilarious and hearty duet “Take a Chance on Me” stole the show as the audience favorite.

However, my favorite numbers of the show were the ones that included the entire ensemble. Their energy was tangible and ranged from wild and cheeky to polished and poised. In “Lay All Your Love on Me,” the younger boys danced around in large rubber flippers, then pulled off difficult acrobatic stunts in “Does Your Mother Know?” Great team choreography is seen throughout the show, particularly with “Voulez Vous” and “I Do, I Do, I Do.” The joyful atmosphere here is contagious, and everyone left with giant grins.

Riverside Center for the Performing Arts’  Mamma Mia! comes at a welcome time. In the anxious, uncertain nature of our current everyday lives, Riverside offers a refreshing reprieve. Let yourself have some fun and take in a showing while you can.

Running Time: Two and a half hours, with one 15-minute intermission.

Mamma Mia! plays through March 4, 2018, at Riverside Center for the Performing Arts — 95 Riverside Parkway in Fredericksburg, VA. For tickets, call (540) 370-4300 or order them online.