‘Mamma Mia!’ Surflight’s Current Production, Is One Great Show

By RICK MELLERUP | Jul 22, 2019
Courtesy of: Studio 63 Photography

Beach Haven, NJ — I’m worried somebody sneaked a pod from “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” into my bedroom because I absolutely loved Surflight Theatre’s “Mamma Mia!” which will run through Aug. 4.

I am not typically a fan of fluffy musicals, preferring more serious fare such as “1776,” “Shenandoah,” “Fiddler on the Roof” and, still my favorite musical ever, “West Side Story.” “Mamma Mia” is as substantial as cotton candy.

Having grown up with rock, I detest pop music.

I don’t care for jukebox musicals once they stray from the biographical path of a “Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story” or “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.” When a book is constructed around a group of unrelated songs, it often becomes a case of fitting square pegs into round holes, with a vivid example being “Rock of Ages,” one of the worst shows I’ve ever had to sit through. The only unifying musical factor in “Mamma Mia” is a string of ABBA hits with no other obvious theatrical connection. And to return to my second point, I always found ABBA’s music sickly-sweet, pop to the degree of a grape Nehi.

Yet I found myself cheering loudly through much of Surflight’s “Mamma Mia.”

Hey, the show has five – count ’em, five – legitimate showstoppers. “Mamma Mia” isn’t really a dance show, but the production numbers were incredible. The acting was solid throughout; the singers didn’t hit a wrong note and soared at times, helped by the sound design of Ian Wehrle. The lighting design by Andrew Gray was probably superior to that of any Surflight show I’ve ever seen before – the opening scene of Act 2 looked like a movie, and a good one at that. Maybe it was the 100 degree weather on Sunday afternoon when I took in the show, but ABBA’s music felt like a cool Aegean breeze. Director Paula Hammons Sloan has outdone herself!

Catherine Johnson had her work cut out for her when she wrote the book for “Mamma Mia.” She came up with a kind of wacky plot that somehow worked in the disparate ABBA songs perfectly, moving the story line along as well as the songs in a truly integrated musical.

Sophie Sheridan (Julia Rippon) is about to get married to Sky (no last name; maybe he was a hippie child, played by John Guaragna). She’d love to have her father escort her down the aisle, but she has a major problem – neither she nor her mother, Donna (Sandra Bargman), has any idea who her father is. Sophie, upon sneaking a peek at Donna’s diary, figures out there are three possible candidates who fit the timeline. Using her mother’s name, she invites them all to her wedding on the Greek island where Mom owns and runs a taverna.

So the three potential fathers – Sam Carmichael (Andrew Foote), Bill Austin (Tom Orr) and Harry Bright (David Discenza, although an understudy, Chris Peterkin, filled in admirably on Sunday) – who had romantic interludes with Donna one after another about nine months before Sophie’s birth, show up the day before the wedding, seemingly arriving on the same boat.

Also attending the wedding are Tanya Cresham-Leigh (Sara Braslow) and Rosie Mulligan (Katrina Johnson), two of Donna’s old friends who had once performed with her in a girl group called Donna and the Dynamos; Ali (Ashley Agrusa) and Lisa (Sara Shomgard), who will serve as Sophie’s bridesmaids; and Pepper (Parker Aimone) and Eddie (Ryan Mulvaney), two of Sky’s friends who work at the taverna.

I’m going to give part of the show’s ending away. Sophie and Donna are no Holmes and Watson and can never figure out who the father is. As I said, Johnson’s book is sometimes unbelievable because the show is set in 2000 and paternity tests had been around for decades.

But that makes no difference to Sophie because over the course of the show she’s grown quite fond of all the men and decides having three fathers is a pretty cool thing.

Time to talk about the showstoppers.

The first takes place at Sky’s bachelor party, where the male chorus dances in swim fins. Now there’s a one-up on the jump rope dance in Surflight’s first mainstage show of the year, “Holiday Inn.”

The second is another dance number. Pepper has the hots for Tanya, who dismisses him, saying she is old enough to be his mother. But Pepper jokes he has an Oedipus complex and, to the music of “Does Your Mother Know,” hopes to impress her with his dance moves. Aimone certainly impressed the audience with his athletic style. When a dancer does flips, the audience is almost sure to flip out – and it did! I wish I had thought of timing the applause.

Foote wowed the crowd with his solo performance of “Knowing Me, Knowing You.” But that was just a comparative warm-up to Bargman’s performance of “The Winner Takes It All,” more throaty and powerful than ABBA’s Agnetha Faltskog’s version. Bargman had me jumping to my feet shouting bravo!

Finally, there was Johnson and Orr’s “Take a Chance on Me.” Johnson is the finest comic performer in this year’s cast.

I could go on and on with raves. In fact, I’m even reconsidering ABBA.

Hold on, what’s that big green pod doing in my living room?

Tickets for “Mamma Mia” are $39 for adults and $29 for children 12 years of age and younger. They may be purchased online at surflight.org, by phone at 609-492-9477 or at the box office, located at 201 Engleside Ave., Beach Haven. Don’t delay because these tickets are hotter than the pavement was this past weekend.

rickmellerup@thesandpaper.net

(Courtesy of: Studio 63 Photography)
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