116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — I’ve been waiting for years to love “Mamma Mia!”
Finally, I do. Or in the words of ABBA: I do, I do, I do, I do, I do.
Theatre Cedar Rapids has pulled the plug on this jukebox musical. No longer is the music of ABBA driving a thin story. In this production, which opened Friday and continues through July 31, the story drives the music.
I’ve seen "Mamma Mia!“ several times onstage and screen, and enjoyed them, but the story always seemed so contrived.
Finally, it all makes sense. All it took was a killer cast, a killer director, killer choreography, a killer orchestra, and killer scenery, lights and costumes. And beach balls. You can never have too many beach balls, or guys dancing in swim fins.
What: “Mamma Mia!”
Where: Theatre Cedar Rapids, 102 Third St. SE, Cedar Rapids
When: Through July 31, 2022; 7:30 p.m. Thursday to Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $22 to $49, TCR Box Office, (319) 366-8591 or theatrecr.org/event/mamma-mia/2022-06-24/
Christopher Okiishi is such a smart director, always looking to amplify the story and present it in unexpected ways. He’s also a wonderful actor and musician, and this trifecta is written all over this production.
Of course, having Janelle Lauer in the leading role of mamma Donna, you just can’t go wrong. She creates magic wherever she’s performing. Her Donna is fierce, scrappy and independent, as a single mom who has eked out a life for herself and her daughter, Sophie, by creating a little hotel on a Greek island.
On the weekend of Sophie’s wedding, Donna is a bundle of nerves and uncertainty as she watches her daughter, now 20, choose a very different life path at a very young age. But the deep love she holds for Sophie bubbles to the surface in a beautiful, intimate moment as she helps her daughter dress for the biggest step either one has ever taken.
Sophie Lindwall is luminous as Sophie. TCR audiences have watched her grow up on stage, first singing the title song in “Meet Me in St. Louis” as a fourth-grader in 2012, then as young Cosette in “Les Miserables,” young Fiona in “Shrek,” Peter in “Peter Pan,” and last summer during a featured role in “Bright Star.”
She is a bright star, and her sweet voice on “I Have a Dream” opens “Mamma Mia!” with an innocence that is hope personified. She carries that quality throughout the ups and downs of her rather chaotic wedding weekend.
Sophie (the character) wants to have her father walk her down the aisle — but she doesn’t know who he is. However, when she snoops through her mother’s diary, she discovers that in the summer of 1979, Donna had flings with three men, any of whom could be Sophie’s father. So three months before the big day, she invites them all to her wedding, certain she’ll recognize her father at first sight. Shrouded in secrecy, she doesn’t tell her mother about this plan.
So imagine all of the swirling emotions when all three dad-candidates arrive on the island at the same time, not knowing why they’ve been invited. They meet Sophie, who doesn’t explain anything, and after she’s left, they see Donna, which wasn’t part of Sophie’s plan.
The show then dances its merry way through an amazing maze punctuated by an ABBA hit parade.
In the hands of a bunch of super troupers, each song steps out of the jukebox and into the sweet, sticky storyline. These actors — guided by Okiishi and Lauer, who also serves as the show’s music director — find just the right tone in each song to convey nuances no one listening to ABBA on the radio in the ’70s could begin to imagine.
Every voice is outstanding, but special shout-outs go to Donna’s girlfriends, Jennifer Ford (Tonya) and Shelby Myers (Rosie), who were part of Donna’s girl power group, Donna and the Dynamos; and the “dads,” Tad Paulson (adventure writer Bill), Jake Stigers (hilariously uptight former metal head Harry) and especially Reeder Hoke (architect Sam who once longed to build a life with Donna). While the other two dads get the laughs, Hoke has the most heartfelt scenes.
As terrific as everyone is, when Lauer unleashes that rockin’ blues belt for which she’s known, she brings down the house. Sunday’s matinee viewers couldn’t contain themselves as Donna ends a bitter argument with Sam by lamenting “The Winner Takes it All.” Cheers and applause erupted as Lauer’s angst rose higher and higher.
Every step of the way, conductor and associate music director Forrest Green leads the fantastic orchestra on a retro romp through the musical name of the game. Anna Slife’s clever choreography is not only athletic, bouncy and charming, but those of us who were disco divas will recognize flashes of dances from our heyday.
You’ll have to see for yourself how all the threads tie up, but just don’t leave after the bows. When the mirror ball starts spinning, you’ll be up on your feet channeling your inner dancing queen through three encores, and you won’t want it all to end.
Side note: In a show about love and marriage, Friday’s opening night audience was treated to something extra special, when Paulson’s girlfriend, Meg Norris, was called to the stage. The couple met and fell in love doing multiple shows there. Through a veil of screams, cheers and applause, Paulson asked her to take a chance on him. She said yes. Next up? “I do, I do, I do, I do, I do.”
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