NY Times Review: Dancing in the Aisles to ‘Mamma Mia!’ in Northport

New York Times

Aileen Jacobson

August 19, 2016

Catchy tunes and a clever plot helped make “Mamma Mia!” a 14-year-long hit on Broadway, and those qualities continue to provide buoyancy for the production at the John W. Engeman Theater at Northport.

The musical’s construction is smart, too: It begins with a lively overture previewing some of the familiar tunes by the Swedish pop group Abba that fill the show, and it ends with curtain-call reprises of two of the bounciest songs, the title number and “Dancing Queen,” along with a bonus song, “Waterloo,” that Catherine Johnson, the resourceful book writer, somehow was unable to squeeze into her plot. She did, however, manage to find ways to integrate, with few or no changes in the lyrics, more than 20 other songs by the Abba writing team, Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus (with some help from Stig Anderson). The musical closed on Broadway only a year ago, after spawning multiple productions and tours all over the world.

Since the actors encourage an audience singalong and group dance party during the choreographed curtain call — some performers even run into the aisles — the show ends on an intensive upbeat note.

The Engeman production needs that forgiving finale. It suffers from different styles and levels of acting skills, though it retains a fluffy, feel-good energy. Antoinette DiPietropolo, the director and choreographer, is better at moving cast members around in lively steps (and allowing the excellent dancers among them to show off) than she is at reining in the less seasoned actors, whose exaggerated facial expressions sometimes veered into cartoon territory.

The production’s greatest strengths are its leading actors. Hannah Slabaugh, who plays the 20-year-old Sophie Sheridan — who is about to get married and desires to meet the father she never knew — calls to mind a young Laura Benanti, with her fresh look and spunky-but-wise-beyond-her-years spirit. She also has a lovely voice, noticeable from the start in “I Have a Dream,” a soft ballad that begins and ends the plotted part of the musical.

Sophie has grown up on a small Greek island where her single mother, Donna, runs a taverna. After finding her mother’s diary from some nine months before her birth, Sophie discovers that her father could be one of three men, though none would be aware of her existence. Pretending to be her mother, Sophie sends wedding invitations to all three men, certain she’ll be able to determine which one is her dad. They all accept and show up, which is not a welcome surprise for either Donna or Sophie’s fiancé, Sky (Jacob Dickey).

To the role of Donna, the former star of a disco-era girl group called Donna and the Dynamos, Michelle Dawson brings a knockout voice and an aura of maturity and gravity. Ms. Dawson knows the part well — she was an understudy for it on Broadway and played Donna during the national tour. She suffuses her numbers with deep emotions, particularly in her high-voltage “The Winner Takes It All,” when Donna feels she has lost her chance at happiness.

The men playing the possible fathers (Frank Vlastik, Jeff Williams and Sean Hayden, each personable and distinctive) are less intense, but like Ms. Dawson are adept at keeping their roles within an acceptable realm of realism. As are the two women who play the Dynamos, with Heather Patterson King as the glossy, still-svelte Tanya and Robin Lounsbury as the more down-to-earth Rosie. When they enter, trailing remnants of their glamorous but eccentric pasts, they look a little like Edina and Patsy from the BBC television comedy and recent movie “Absolutely Fabulous.” When they, along with Donna, dress up in their tight, silver Dynamos outfits, they all look like shiny refugees from a “Star Trek” movie, thanks to Tristan Raines’s amusing costume designs.

Earlier, in their everyday clothes (Donna’s include ripped jeans, because she does a lot of repair work on her property), the three women reminisce about their former glory with an impromptu performance of “Dancing Queen,” each grabbing a shoe, a hairbrush or a flashlight to use as a make-believe microphone.

Very few numbers remain as a solo, duet or trio. In many scenes, a supporting chorus of singers and dancers soon pops up, which works well for a jukebox musical like this one. The band, under James Olmstead’s musical direction, provides a driving rhythmic support. DT Willis’s set, dramatically lighted by Adam Honore, is a low-key but pleasing element, with evocative silhouettes in the first and last scenes that enhance the fable-like tone of the musical.
The most troubled relationship is that between Donna and Sam (Mr. Hayden), while the most heartwarming is the one that develops between Rosie and the adventurous Australian, Bill (Mr. Williams), to the tune of “Take a Chance on Me.”

Two of the lines from that song are “But I think you know, that I can’t let go,” which is something nearly all the lyrics could be saying. These classic tunes are earworms — so watch out. Even reading or saying the titles may embed them, once again, in your psyche.

Village Tattler Review: Thank You for the Music of Mamma Mia!

The Village Tattler

Claudia D. Wheeler

August 4, 2016


The perfect summer musical is already engaging audiences at Northport’s John W. Engeman Theater, now through September 11, 2016. Mamma Mia! takes it all and gives it all–another successful production with an enormously talented cast led by the amazing director and choreographer Antoinette DiPietropolo, who returns to Engeman after successful choreography of Memphis, Miracle on 34th Street, The Producers, A Christmas Story, Evita!, The Music Man, South Pacific, Hairspray, I Love You You’re Perfect Now Change, and NunsenseMamma Mia! is produced by Richard T. Dolce, the Engeman Theater’s Producing Artistic Director.

The band in this musical is such a key to its success showcasing the pop songs of ABBA, and Engeman’s band knocks it out of the theater with Alexander Rovang as Conductor and Keyboard; Anthony Brindisi on Keyboard 2; Douglas Baldwin on guitars; Russ Brown on bass; and Josh Endlich on drums.

Tickets are going fast and shows have been added to meet the demand (seewww.EngemanTheater.com for the full schedule). Performances are on Thursdays at 8:00pm, Fridays at 8:00pm, Saturdays at 3:00pm and 8:00pm, and Sundays at 2:00. Some Tuesday, Wednesday, and Sunday evenings are available. Tickets are $76 on Saturday evenings, $71 all other performances and may be purchased by calling (631) 261-2900, going online atwww.EngemanTheater.com, or by visiting the Engeman Theater Box Office at 250 Main Street, Northport.

This Tony Award-nominated musical was written by British playwright Catherine Johnson, and is based on the songs of the Swedish pop group ABBA. Music was composed by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, former members of the band ABBA, who were involved with the production from the start. The show premiered on London’s West End in 1999, making its way to its Broadway premiere in 2001, where it ran for 14 years (most of that run at the Winter Garden Theater).

Memorable hit songs include “The Winner Takes It All,” “Dancing Queen,” “Take a Chance on Me,” “Thank You for the Music,” and “Voulez-Vous,” among others.

The cast of Mamma Mia! features the incredible Michelle Dawson who plays the lead Donna Sheridan and played the same part in Mamma Mia! on Broadway. Her acting is spot on and she plays the role seamlessly. Having seen the Broadway version of the musical about 4 years ago, I was impressed with Engeman’s version. Other Broadway credits for Dawson include Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark, Ragtime, Showboat, & Cyrano.

 The show centers around a plot that unfolds on a Greek island paradise (kudos to the creative team that includes DT Willis for the amazing scenic design). Donna’s daughter  Sophie is about to get married and is on a quest to discover the identity of her father (all of Act 1 is the day before the wedding); Act 2 takes place the day of the wedding.

The trio of possible fathers are invited to the wedding by bride-to-be Sophie. They return to the island they first visited 21 years before when they met Donna.

Bride-to-be Sophie Sheridan is played by Hannah Slabaugh who makes her Engeman debut in Mamma Mia! Her credits include the National Tour of Annie; Regional Theater: Les Miserables (Eponine), Next to Normal (Natalie). Her groom-to-be is Jacob Dickey whose credits include Regional: The Mystery of Edwin Drood (Theatre Raleigh), Mamma Mia! (Royal Caribbean), Next to Normal(Charleston Stage).

Sophie’s possible dads are played, at times hilariously, by the three actors Sean Hayden, Jeff Williams, and Frank Vlastnik, who are all Donna’s boyfriends from 21 years before. Hayden is Sam Carmichael (Broadway national tours: Lincoln Centers The Light in the Piazza and Mamma Mia! Off Broadway: Confidentially, Cole; Williams is Bill Austin (Broadway/National Tour: The Music Man, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Pirate Queen, A Christmas Carol, The Will Rogers Follies,Me and My Girl); and Vlastnik as Harry Bright (Engeman Theater: The Sunshine Boys; Broadway: A Year with Frog and Toad, Sweet Smell of Success, Big. Off-Broadway: Sondheim’s Saturday Night).

Notable performances are made by both of Donna’s girlfriends Tanya and Rosie. Heather Patterson King, who delights the audience in her role as Tanya, is a long-time friend of Donna’s who returns to the island for the wedding. King’s credits include Regional and NY: Oliver, Fiddler on the Roof, The Wizard of Oz. The character of Rosie is performed by Robin Lounsbury, whose credits include Regional: Fulton Theatre, Barrington Stage, Paper Mill Playhouse, North Shore Music Theatre.

The cast also includes: Lydia Ruth Dawson, Joey Dippel, Jay Gamboa, Christopher Hlinka, Stephanie Israelson, Yurina Kutsukake, Darius Jordan Lee, Suzanne Mason, Edward Miskie, Anjuli Regnier, Avery Royal, and Jennifer Seifter.

The creative team includes DT Willis for scenic design, Tristan Raines for costume design, Adam Honore for lighting design, Adam Shubert for sound design, Gayle Seay and Scott Wojcik as casting directors, Wojcik/Seay Casting, Kristie Moschetta for props design, Denise Wilcox as production/stage manager, and Megan E. Coutts as assistant stage manager.

Read online: www.villagetattler.com/thank-music-mamma-mia/

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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