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.

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