THE GREEK TAVERNA TAKES OVER BERKELEY AS ABBA’S POP SCORE “DANCING QUEEN” IS A SURE FALL HIT FOR FANS WHO CAN’T STOP DANCING AND SINGING FROM THEIR SEATS
“Here we go again” I am back to the Aegean sea island as I accompanied bride Sophie at the Greek taverna Villa in search for her real Dad. The Berkeley Playhouse opens their 12th season of family theater with the hit musical MAMMA MIA through October 20th at the Julia Morgan Center for the Arts. The jukebox musical MAMMA MIA is based on the disco-era hits of the Swedish band ABBA. Book by Catherine Johnson, music and lyrics by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus. The wedding of the year has been rocking Bay Area regional stages for three years now - at times the Wedding is playing every month on a stage near you. Why? Audiences can’t wait to see this jukebox party, it is a cash cow for regional Theatres.
Executive Director and Producer Kimberly Dooley says the company is dreaming big, “We are diving into powerful pieces of theater about family and communities that you will care for, laugh with, and cheer on as they fight for what they believe in." Artistic Director Elizabeth McKoy says "Mamma Mia! is truly the ultimate celebration of love, laughter, and community, and is packed full of unforgettable hit songs that the whole family will adore." Directed by the clever Lexie Lazear, she brings a new look to a musical I have seen more than a dozen times. Some of Lazear’s changes work and some don’t - Music Director Michael Patrick Wiles also brings a different take to many of the hit ABBA songs. But choreographer Megan McGrath brings an entire new look to the dance portion of MAMMA.
HISTORY: After 5,770 world wide performances, MAMMA MIA received two Drama Desk Awards and five Tony Award Nominations. The popular 2008 movie starring Meryl Streep and the sequel has introduced a new generation to the music of ABBA. With icon hits like “Dancing Queen,” and “SOS,” the cast of twenty does not disappoint at this wedding bash.
This short review won’t include any story info, we know Sophie wants to meet her real dad to give her away. I will keep to the point and mention the actors and some of their performances. The 20 member first rate cast includes some of the Bay Area’s best talent including the gifted Katrina Lauren McGraw as Donna, the owner of the villa. The splendid Chanel Tilghman is Donna’s daughter, the bride Sophie. The three dads, Sam played by the capable Brendon SImon, the terrific Ryan Weible plays Harry, and Bill is played by the ideal local BPH favorite Matt Davis. All three dads sing the banner song “Mamma Mia” with McGraw and McGrath’s dance team is on que in this number and all 28 songs.
The chorus and dance ensemble are an important part of this MAMMA, they dominate the two act show to a point they become a pleasant distraction dressed in glitter dance clothes designed by Jolie O’Dell. The vibrant Miko Ison, Alyssa Fredzess, Diella Wottrich, Billy Raphael, Tiana Paulding, Daniel Quezada, and the gifted Ronald James bring a new arch to the ABBA hit songs. McGrath stages many of the numbers with a ballet feel and it's not much of an island Villa disco. This version misses the classic wetsuit and flippers swim number by the male cast, and for that reason you don’t get much of a beach feel from this wedding.
Tilghman shines in her songs “Honey Honey” and “Name of the Game” they are upbeat as she gives a fresh take to her character. Sophie's two gal pals Ali and Lisa are played by the enthusiastic Claire Pearson and Jennifer Frazier who backs up Tilghman in “Money Money Money”. The handsome groom, Sky, is played by Jackson Thea a good match for Tilghman. Their stage romance and song “Lay All Your Love On Me” is keen, but at times Thea is invisible with not much character. The dance ensemble outshines him and I found it easy to lose him in this MAMMA. The two Villa boys Eddie and Pepper are also lost in this show, not doing much dancing and their big bit with the groom to take him off to his bachelor party “Lay All Your Love” failed. The versatile Connor Johnson and Scott Taylor-Cole two BPH vets play the two Villa boys you would never guess they worked at an island beach hotel unless you have seen this story a few times.
McGraw’s big voice as Donna delivers in “Winner Takes It All”. Her two best friends Rosie and Tanya played by the superb Jill Gould and Melinda Meeng rock in the classic “Dancing Queen” and get to the punch sooner. Director Lazear removed the bit with two women fighting for the one bed and the air mattress scene. Set designer Mark Mendleson’s bright rustic Greek hotel setting is a high light in this production including the one hotel room that spins into place on his turntable. The rich blue tone of the villa, of course, highlight the dancers, but the set adds to the non-island feel that was missing from this version. The beautiful flowers that dress the main set are impressive eye candy. Lighting designer Chris Lundahl only adds the disco feel to the uplifting final 80’s party. Music director Wiles has a full force pit of seven musicians that fill the Juila Morgan with ABBA hits. Wiles’ direction eliminates the pounding disco to some of the classics, but it was a nice change of pace. The talented Billy Raphael who oversees the second act wedding is also on stage throughout the show playing live string instruments with the ensemble.
The energized sold out weekend audience claps and sings with the cast. The clever props by Evan Favela and Colette Walker include wedding flowers and fun microphones for the fab “Donna and the Dynamos” and plenty of boas, and champagne glasses. Lyle Barrere’s sound team Cameron Assadi, John Digiorgio, and Steven Kroeger bring the perfect tone to this wedding celebration. Stage manager Shannon Reilly and her team Natalia Kazimi and Brigid Ridge keep the busy cast moving on and off the island with ease as many entrances are from the audience.
The curtain call ABBA mosh mix drew a standing ovation from the sold out crowd. The audience dancing in their seats during the finale has become a ritual, the audience is easily one of the stars of this show. This company will not disappoint in this version of MAMMA MIA. Next up at the BPH is the holiday treat A CHRISTMAS STORY that opens November 8th. Next summer the newspaper strike NEWSIES opens in June 2020. But in the meantime attend the wedding of the fall season, MAMMA MIA is always a treat no matter how many times you attend this wedding.
The Berkeley Playhouse Presents
Music by ABBA
Music and Lyrics by
Benny Anderson and Bjorn Ulvanus
Book by Catherine Johnson
Directed by Lexie Lazear
Music Direction by Michael Patrick Wiles
Choreographed by Megan McGrath
Ex Director Kimberley Dooley
Founding Artistic Director Elizabeth McKoy
Must Close Oct 20th
PERFORMED AT THE JULIA MORGAN CENTER
COLLEGE AVE, BERK CA
Runs Two hours with one intermission
Tickets at berkeleyplayhouse.org
Great discount seats at goldstar.com
Photos by Ben Krantz Studio