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Long Island Press Review: Mamma Mia! Hit Musical Debuts at Northport’s Engeman Theater

Long Island Press

August 2, 2016

Elise Pearlman

Mamma Mia!, the Broadway smash hit musical showcasing the high-energy songs of pop superstars ABBA, recently began its East Coast regional debut at The John W. Engeman Theater at Northport.

It is said that the musical, which has played to international audiences and had a record 14-year run on Broadway, often inspired dancing in the aisles. Well, the Engeman production was so sensational that if the historic theater had wider aisles, dancing would have prevailed. Following a thunderous standing ovation, the cast treated the audience to a finale reprising the show’s hottest numbers. As theatergoers clapped, sang along and danced in place, the actors broke the fourth wall and streamed off the stage, performing throughout the theater and heightening the excitement.

If you can only see one show this summer, it must be Mamma Mia!

The story unfolds in a taverna perched high on a sun-kissed Greek island adrift in the Aegean Sea. The owner of this little piece of paradise is single mom Donna Sheridan, who’s finishing up last-minute details in preparation for the wedding of her 20-year-old daughter, Sophie. There’s quite the emotional conundrum casting a shadow on the festivities.

Donna was never sure who Sophie’s father was because she sowed some wild oats with three guys around the time that Sophie was conceived. Sophie unearths her mother’s diary, which contains intimate details about the possible identity of her father. It’s her dream to have him walk her down the aisle, so unbeknownst to her mother, Sophie has invited her three could-be fathers to the wedding. The past will collide with the present in the funniest way possible when this trio of unexpected guestswhom Donna has not seen in 21 yearsarrives.

How did the songs of the wildly popular Swedish pop music group that reigned for 10 years between the early 1970s and ’80s come to be the basis for a global smash hit?

In the early ’80s, award-winning British theatrical producer Judy Craymer serendipitously met ABBA’s Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson when they were working with Tim Rice on the musical, Chess. After hearing “The Winner Takes It All,” Craymar conceived of ABBA’s songs as a framework for a theatrical production. The songwriters themselves were not totally convinced of the viability of such a project.

It was a long time in the making, but in ’97, Catherine Johnson was commissioned to pen the book. The show opened in ’99 in London. It has been reported that Craymar reaped more than $100 million from her stroke of genius, and Mamma Mia! mania continues to this day. Now it’s reached Northport.

Mamma Mia! is one of the most captivating and exhilarating productions to ever grace the Engeman stage. The cast, the direction, choreography, the set and the music are simply superlative.

The performance of Michelle Dawson (Donna) is informed by a complete understanding of each of the adult female characters. She has played all of them between the Broadway National Tour and as an understudy on Broadway. Dawson shines as the strong woman who pulled herself up by her bootstraps while nursing a bruised heart. She bares her soul in the gut-wrenching song, “The Winner Takes It All,” and renders it beautifully.

Hannah Slabaugh, who boasts a plethora of national and regional tour credits, embodies the youthful exuberance that defines Sophie Sheridan. She has incredible stage presence and the mellifluous voice of an angel. From her first song, “I Have A Dream,” you’ll be smitten.  Jacob Dickey, plays Sky, her fiancé, and you’ll feel their chemistry in their duet, “Lay All Your Love on Me.”

As the story goes, Donna was once part of an all-girl band, “Donna and the Dynamos.” Donna’s singing sidekicks, Rosie and Tanya, are played to perfection by Robin Lounsbury and Heather Patterson King, respectively. Ms. King, who has played the character in Mamma Mia International RCI is hilarious as the thrice-married femme fatale who has some very humorous, off-color moments in “Does Your Mother Know?” with a flirtatious younger man, Pepper (Christopher Hlinka). Ms. Lounsbury similarly tickles the audience’s funny bone to the max in her duet with Bill (Jeff Williams).

All of Donna’s former lovers have pursued different paths in life, and a large portion of the plot has the audience guessing about Sophie’s paternity. Sam (Sean Hayden, who played the character in the Broadway National Tour), who jotted the design of the taverna on a napkin during his time with Donna, became an architect. His tender, caring side comes to the fore in the bittersweet solo, “Knowing Me, Knowing You.”

Similarly, Harry (Frank Vlastnik), now a banker, shines in the reminiscent duet, “Our Last Summer.” In contrast, Bill (Jeff Williams), an Australian journalist, shows off his comedic chops when Rosie puts some aggressive moves on him in “Take A Chance On Me.”

Scenic designer DT Willis’ visually appealing set resonates with the blues and turquoises of the Aegean Sea. An oversized circular portal provides an enchanting view of the waters below the hilltop taverna. The circular theme and the Mediterranean colors are echoed in the floor design.

Further visual unification is supplied by the charming blue distressed interior doors. Adam Honoré’s glorious lighting further enhances the beauty of the set. The silhouetting of characters against the circular portal is an outstanding touch.

I first met Antoinette DiPietropolo when she directed and choreographed another one of my favorite shows at the Engeman, Nunsense. Her direction and choreography is flawless, and she brings the same sense of fun that she brought to Nunsense toMamma Mia! I particularly enjoyed the choreography and wild abandon of the seductive “Voulez-Vous,” as well as “Does Your Mother Know?”

The hits keep coming, so I’d be hard-pressed to pick a favorite song, but, of course, the title song, “Mamma Mia,” when a conflicted Donna experiences an emotional thunderbolt as she sees her lost love again, is a standout.

Music is what has made Mamma Mia! a sensation. The extraordinarily talented James Olmstead, who has been at the helm for Engeman’s best-loved musicals, is once again the musical director. Known for his expertise in maximizing the sound of the pit band, and his skillful re-orchestration, he is at the top of his game, and it shows, big time.

Expect to be wowed by the colorful costumes designed by Tristan Raines. I absolutely loved the form-fitting silver ensembles worn by Donna and her gal pals in “Super Trouper.” The fringed vest and granny glasses seen in “The Dancing Queen” will trigger a wave of nostalgia.

Mamma Mia! runs through Sept. 11. Theatergoers are urged to purchase tickets early as high demand has already prompted the addition of extra performances, and this show might very well sell out. Tickets can be purchased at the box office, by calling 631-261-2900 or visiting www.engemantheater.com The John W. Engeman Theater is located at 250 Main St., Northport.

Read online: www.longislandpress.com/mamma-mia-hit-musical-debuts-at-northports-engeman-theater

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