For its dreamy production of “Mamma Mia!,’ Merely Players has created an Aegean illusion. A cozy tourist hotel on a tiny Greek island features a friendly bar, a warm beach and one comfy room.
What does it say that our resident theatrical company conjures such magic on the Durango Art Center’s wide but cramped stage with no fly space and limited technology? It says a lot. A lot about creativity and imagination.
Co-directed by the Players founder and guru, Mona Wood-Patterson and Fort Lewis College drama professor Theresa A. Carson, “Mamma Mia!” is an evergreen, feel-good, pop musical that rivals Cinderella, Snow White and Rapunzel for fairy tale fantasy.
In a brief prologue, young Sophie Sheridan (played by the engaging Jessica Jane Harris alternately with Siena Widen) quietly sings “I have a dream.” The daughter of a single mother (the talented Joy Kilpatrick, alternately with Mandy Gardner), Sophie wishes to identify her real father and have him walk her down the aisle at her imminent wedding.
Like every good fairy tale, Sophie’s wish propels all the action, beginning with reading her mother’s diary, discovering three possible father candidates, surreptitiously inviting them to the wedding, dealing with her mother, sorting out identities and stumbling into unexpected relationship territory. Every complication eventually leads directly to a super-happy ending.
Sophie’s opening song, “I have a dream,” propels cast, crew and audience through “Mamma Mia!,” a wildly energetic musical, marked by the irresistible beat of ABBA’s disco splendor.
With a cast of 29, the production has attracted a lot of major local talent plus the return of Equity Actor Dallas Padoven to portray Sky, Sophie’s handsome, smiling fiancé. So rich is the talent pool, the directors double cast three major roles. Donna Sheridan (Kilpatrick and Gardner), Sophie (Harris and Widen), Sam Carmichael (Jason Lythgoe – last season’s Man of La Mancha – and Stephen M. Bowers, previously featured in “Mary Poppins”).
The rest of the cast performs every night with particularly strong portrayals by Jeff Graves (Harry Bright), Geoff Johnson (Bill Austin), Rebecca Gilbert and Jenny Fitts Reynolds in stand-out comedic roles (Donna’s friends Tanya and Rosie).
Opening weekend, all cast members acquitted themselves well dancing through tech director Charles Ford’s imaginative set in costumer JoAnn Nevils Mediterranean colors.
The co-directors seamlessly merged the style of Acts I and II, effectively using the technique of freezing action to foreground a significant monologue. The technique dramatically stops and isolates a story where wishes, dreams and memories seep into present time. Several times, chorus members froze in place so principals could provide important backstory and also move the plot forward. Two scenes were particularly effective: the potential fathers’ individual romances with Donna and the rare, dark moment – Sophie’s pre-wedding nightmare.
You don’t have to be an ABBA fan to respond to the music. Its rhythmic, life-giving joy comes through even in Donna’s poignant “The Winner Takes It All.” And as expected, last Saturday, some audience members started swaying and singing when Donna, Tanya and Rosie break into “Dancing Queen.”
The company follows current regional theater trends by purchasing audio accompaniment. Music director Tom Kyser keeps canned and live music together, especially with an off-stage chorus augmenting many of the songs. Choreographer Suzy DiSanto underscores the ebullient nature of the entire show with inventive individual movement and creative group dances.
Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theatre Critics Association.