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'MAMMA MIA' presented by Thousand Islands Playhouse

Now on stage until August 10 at the Springer Theatre, 185 South Street, Gananoque

Credit: Randy deKleine-Stimpson Pictured: Jessica Sherman and the company of MAMMA MIA

Joe Szekeres

‘Destination Thousand Islands Playhouse has done it right yet again. ‘Mamma Mia’ is a bona fide hit. Silly and absurd? Yes, but who cares? This production is joyously fun-filled. I had a terrific time watching this diverse cast do their thing passionately.”

On a beautiful sun-kissed turquoise Greek taverna, Sophie (Annika Tupper) prepares for her wedding to fiancé Sky (Brandon Antonio). After reading her mother Donna’s (Jessica Sherman) diary, Sophie is still unaware of who her real father is. The diary refers to at least three men with whom Donna was intimate. Writing in her mother’s name without letting her know, Sophie invites all three, hoping it will become clear who her real father is. There is Sam (David Leyshon), an American architect and divorced father; Bill (Jeremy Legat), an Australian wandering writer and adventurer; and Harry (Rob Torr), a British banker.

Years ago, Donna was the star of a musical trio, Donna and the Dynamos, along with her friends Rosie (Laura Caswell) and Tanya (Louise Camilleri). The latter two have arrived to share in Sophie's joyous day. However, the unexpected arrival of the three potential fathers, much to Donna’s surprise and anger, adds a delightful and unexpected twist to the proceedings, keeping the audience engaged as the plot unfolds toward discovering Sophie’s real father.

What is it about this 25-year-old jukebox musical that still transcends generations and draws audiences of all ages in droves?

‘Mamma Mia’ is a product of the twentieth century. At times, the plot becomes silly and absurd. Some twentieth-century references will probably go right over young people's heads in the audience. At times, some of the sexual overtness might not sit well. Let’s face it – many years ago, during my undergraduate years, the term ‘hoe bag’ would aptly fit Donna’s behaviour.

Director/Choreographer Stephanie Graham states in her Director’s Note why the show still works:

“There are many atrocious events happening on this planet. Sometimes, we need a couple of hours to escape, sing some familiar songs and dance together in a theatre so that we can recharge and face the world again tomorrow.”

Graham’s right. We gotta lighten up and take ‘Mamma Mia’ for what it is—celebrating the pull-and-tug relationship between mothers and daughters everywhere while hearing and dancing to some terrific ABBA songs. At the performance I attended, a young girl in front of me put her head on her mother’s shoulder during ‘Slipping Through My Fingers.’ The mother wiped tears from her eyes at the end of the song.

That, my friends, is the power of theatre and this Thousand Islands’ production.

Brandon Kleiman’s terrific set design spans the entire Springer stage. It’s breathtakingly washed in Amber Hood’s sun-kissed lighting designs of aqua blue. Bex Tralli’s pleasant soundscape of waves lapping against the shore with the echo of gulls flying overhead transported me away. Another note of commendation to Tralli – I heard every single lyric of every song this afternoon. The sound balance between the orchestra and the performers is perfect. Julia Kim’s summer clothing designs and choices appropriately create a colourful visual panorama.

To the creative team of director/choreographer Stephanie Graham, music director Nick Burgess, stage manager Dustyn Wales, and all crew members behind the scenes. Thank you all for allowing me to experience vicariously being taken away from our hot summer Gananoque afternoon to the serene heat and serenity of the Greek islands.

Graham’s evenly balanced direction never slows the show’s pacing. Set changes with ensemble members remain fluid and seamless. Nick Burgess’s solid music direction allows these nostalgic ABBA songs to soar to the heights of the Springer Theatre thanks to Bex Tralli's fine-tuned sound balancing between the orchestra and performers. Graham’s choreography remains sharply and tightly executed throughout. One moment where it shines is ‘Money, Money, Money.”

It’s a hole-in-one shot for this terrific cast. They’re having the time of their lives on the Springer stage. That kinetic energy spills over to the audience, and I’m right there with them.

Graham has assembled a diverse, spirited ensemble of young performers who contribute to the piece's whimsical and absurdist fun. With hips swivelling, torsos gyrating, and pulses racing, these ensemble members are ones to watch for in future productions.

David Leyshon's robust stature adds strength to his performance as Sam. Jeremy Legat’s Bill is a throwback to Paul Hogan’s Crocodile Dundee from the mid-1980s. Rob Torr’s gentlemanly Harry nicely balances Donna’s, at times, temperamental behaviour.

Laura Caswell’s Rosie’s hilarious and flirtatious duet of ‘Take a Chance on Me’ with Jeremy Legat, as they play musical chairs hopping, remains one of the show's highlights. Louise Cammilleri is a sexy and seductive Tanya. Her cougar-like flirting with hotel pool boy/boy toy Pepper (Tyler Pearse) in ‘Does Your Mother Know’ comically addresses the age gap between the two.

Annika Tupper offers a unique performance as Sophie that works. I’ve seen other productions of ‘Mamma Mia’ with a sweet and demure young woman. Here, Tupper shows a feisty and sometimes tough-as-nails Sophie. Given her unique life with Donna on the island and the distinct challenges of living with a single parent, Sophie has probably grown up experiencing many hardships and challenges.

Brandon Antonio’s young hunk of a Sky offers a dramatic complement to Annika Tupper’s feisty Sophie. When Tupper (as Sophie) finally comes clean about what she has done regarding the three invitations, Antonio’s look at his fiancée clearly shows he has thought through the consequences of Sophie’s actions. Sky is not pleased at all with her. It’s a highly intense dramatic moment that speaks volumes, especially when Sam tells Sophie not to go after Sky because he’s right in what he said.

Jessica Sherman is one of the reasons to run and get tickets. Her Donna is grounded in complete emotional intensity. She’s gutsy, spirited, and bold as a single mother. Man, oh, man, Sherman also sings and sells a song with complete conviction. Her ‘Winner Takes It All’ remains sublime. Her anger, hurt and frustration with Sam for leaving her spill out with rage, love and hate. This moment became a masterclass in acting and singing as I heard myself quietly say ‘Wow’ at the conclusion of the number.

And Another Thought: The production focuses on women's strength and desire to discover their identity. It’s there if you want to look for that.

I’m posting a challenge.

I dare anyone who does not have a smile come across his/her/their face at least once during this bona fide hit of a show at the Playhouse. It’s a dare and challenge.

I hear tickets are scarce, but I have also heard there is availability for the first week of August.

Run, beg, plead to get a ticket. ‘Mamma Mia,’ I’m sure, will be one of the highlights of this 2024 season.

Running time: approximately two hours and 30 minutes with one interval/intermission.

‘Mamma Mia’ runs until August 10 on the Springer Stage, 185 South Street, Gananoque. For tickets, www.1000islandsplayhouse.com or call the Box Office at (613) 382-7020.

THE THOUSAND ISLANDS PLAYHOUSE presents
‘MAMMA MIA’
Music and Lyrics by Benny Andersson & Bjorn Ulvaeus and some songs with Stig Anderson’
Book by Catherine Johnson
Originally Conceived by Judy Craymer
Directed and Choreographed by Stephanie Graham
Music Direction by Nick Burgess
Stage Manager: Dustyn Wales
Set Designed by Brandon Kleiman
Costumes Designed by Julia Kim
Lighting Designed by Amber Hood
Sound Designed by Bex Tralli

Performers: Jessica Sherman, Annika Tupper, Laura Caswell, Louise Camilleri, David Leyshon, Rob Torr, Jeremy Legat, Brandon Antonio, Tyler Pearse, Taylor Garwood, Eva Petris, Jen Fong, Marco DeLuca, Ali Hand, Jaden Kim, Ryan MacDougall, Kyla Musselman, Michelle Nash, Demi Oliver, Patrick Stiles

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