Review: ‘Mamma Mia!’ at Toby’s Dinner Theatre

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Just months after finishing its final pro tour, Mamma Mia! has hit us closer to home at Toby’s Dinner Theatre. In the hands of Director-Choreographer Mark Minnick, the pro caliber of this staging smacks more of a lateral promotion. Call it the Great White Way with tablecloths.

Jeffrey Shankle, Heather Marie Beck and Maggie Dransfield in Mamma Mia! at Toby’s Dinner Theatre. Photo by Jeri Tidwell Photography.
Jeffrey Shankle, Heather Marie Beck and Maggie Dransfield in Mamma Mia! at Toby’s Dinner Theatre. Photo by Jeri Tidwell Photography.

Of course, audiences know they can count on Toby’s to fit the squarest of pegs into its “in-the-round” setting. Even if you normally wouldn’t go for a slab of ABBA slightly past its expiration date you will be delighted by the musical freshness of this spirited, homegrown Mamma Mia!

Originally produced in London and then running on Broadway from 2001 to 2015, the musical was built to house the chart-topping hits of the 1970s Swedish pop group ABBA (music and lyrics by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus). The scenario by Catherine Johnson is more ambitious than that, however, as it weaves the playlist around the oldest plot of them all — the eternal dance of the sexes and its fallout.

At Toby’s, Mark Minnick has become a sort of Jedi master at in-the-round staging. As a director, he uses that sunken central ring to focus the plot and bring dramatic tensions to a boil. Then as a choreographer, he explores the spatial freedom inherent in 360-degree borders.

This show’s main focus is on a single mom and her grown daughter as they tackle the mystery of which of three long-ago lovers could have been the girl’s biological father. The enigma has left Sophie, the daughter, wondering on the eve of her own wedding whether she is making a similar mistake. So she sends letters in her mother’s name to each of her three possible dads, inviting them to visit her Greek island home.

Toby’s newcomer Maggie Dransfield makes a thoroughly charming Sophie. Impetuous, spontaneous and full of joie de vivre, this loving Everydaughter endears us from the start with her beautifully musical voice on such numbers as the flirty “Honey, Honey,” “The Name of the Game” and “I Have a Dream.”

As mother Donna, returning Toby’s favorite Heather Marie Beck has rarely seemed more natural and outgoing. Whether worrying over the upkeep of her Greek taverna or giving in to the nostalgic fun of “Dancing Queen” set off by the arrival of her two former singing buddies, Beck channels some of the superstar charisma of Meryl Streep from the 2008 film. But she is totally on her own home turf when unleashing her heartbroken country twang on “The Winner Takes It All” and the moving mother-daughter duet “Slipping Through My Fingers.”

Playing Donna’s former back-up “Dynamos” Tanya and Rosie, Coby Kay Callahan and Tess Rohan more than hold their own in the talent department during synchronized pop numbers like  “Money, Money, Money” and “Chiquitita.”

Individually, Callahan brings Tanya all the jaded outlook of a seasoned jet-setter as well as a flair for comedy in the delightful rebuff number, “Does Your Mother Know?” Rohan’s Rosie steals the spotlight as a prowling seductress in “Take a Chance on Me,” neatly supported by Russell Sunday’s priceless facial reactions.

Coby Kay Callahan, Heather Marie Beck and Tess Rohan in Mamma Mia! at Toby’s Dinner Theatre. Photo by Jeri Tidwell Photography.
Coby Kay Callahan, Heather Marie Beck and Tess Rohan in Mamma Mia! at Toby’s Dinner Theatre. Photo by Jeri Tidwell Photography.

For a show largely about women’s relationships, Mamma Mia! makes a strong side case for the importance of fathers. The three males cast here garner a good deal of sympathy despite their being MIA for so many years.

Russell Sunday is Bill Austin, the unconfirmed bachelor whose breezy baritone proves a highlight of “Thank You for the Music” and “Waterloo.” Darren McDonnell plays the more straitlaced Brit, Harry Bright, who sings a surprisingly plaintive “Our Last Summer.”

But it is probably Jeffrey Shankle, another versatile Toby’s leading man, who makes the most of his showy role as Sam Carmichael. Shankle holds his emotions back for those big showstopper moments in “SOS” and especially ”Knowing Me, Knowing You.” Wring us out like a sponge, please.

Grand support is offered from every quarter. Sophie’s girl pals Ali and Lisa are delightfully performed by Jamie Pasquinelli and Cassie Saunders. Sky, Sophie’s callow fiancé, is winningly played by Paul Roeckell, and prominent staff aides Eddie and Pepper are brought to full minimum-wage life by Shiloh Orr and Joey Ellinghaus.

Minnick uses the full ensemble to wring maximum fun from the goofier ABBA songs like “Super Trouper” and “Lay All Your Love On Me.” You’ll “flip” at the fluorescent yellow scuba diving getups. But it’s the full-stage kicking and squirming given to numbers like “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)” and “Voulez-Vous” that will have you swaying and tapping your tabletop.

Scenic Designer David A. Hopkins helps us envision that fictional Greek taverna with its shuttered windows and eaves, using moveable set pieces to evoke different settings. As always, the live orchestra directed by Ross Scott Rawlings provides an enveloping excitement to the songs and dance spectacle.

Take it from a resistant ABBA fan: Mamma Mia! at Toby’s is like a Mediterranean vacation without airports or passports. Your family will need boarding passes, though, and I recommend getting them before they become any scarcer.

Running Time: 2 hours and 40 minutes, including one 20-minute intermission.

Mamma Mia! plays through September 9, 2018, at Toby’s Dinner Theatre, 5900 Symphony Woods Road in Columbia, MD. Reservations are required at (301) 596-6161, (410) 730-8311 or 800-88TOBYS, or purchase them through Ticketmaster online.

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John Harding
Born and raised in Los Angeles, John Harding is an award-winning writer and editor. His features and reviews on film and theater have been published in the Washington Post and numerous other newspapers and magazines. Since 1982 he has covered D.C. and Maryland theater for Patuxent Publishing, and was arts editor for the Baltimore Sun Media Group. He hosted a long-running cable-TV cultural affairs program and served numerous terms as chair of the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society. Also known for his fiction as John W. Harding, his newest novel is “The Ben-Hur Murders: Inside the 1925 'Hollywood Games.'” It grew out of his lifelong love of early Hollywood lore. It is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other outlets.

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