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Abba Dabba Doo! 'Mamma Mia' rocks Playhouse stage

Tauren Hagans (Rosie), Mary Mossberg (Donna) and Angie Schworer (Tanya) star in 'Mamma Mia.' [TREADSHOTS PHOTO] Tauren Hagans (Rosie), Mary Mossberg (Donna) and Angie Schworer (Tanya) star in 'Mamma Mia.' [TREADSHOTS PHOTO]

Contrary to the typical destination wedding where a group of friends join the bride and groom on the shimmering sandy beach of a Greek isle, “Mamma Mia,” the latest high energy Flat Rock Playhouse musical, is organized around a wedding where the Greek Isle in question is home.

The island is where Sophie, the bride, has grown up under the care of a single mom. If you were to ask Sophie, “Who’s your daddy?” She would have to say, “I have no idea.” Or, that’s how it’s been for most of her 20 years. However, as the play opens, Sophie has just used her mother’s purloined diary to narrow the mystery to three candidates. Without her mother’s knowledge, she invites three men — suitors from 20 years ago whose affections led to “dot dot dot,” in her mom's diary shorthand — hoping to fulfill her dream of a father walking her down the aisle. She believes she’ll know him when she sees him. If it were only so easy ...

Sky (Zane Phillips), the groom, tells Sophie it is foolish to get so caught up in trying to identify her pater familias. But the quest to fill the gap left by an absent parent is a powerful motivator and age-old theme in human stories and, moreover, no story, no Abba songs. A secondary theme of “Mamma Mia” is the undertow created by secrets and the shifting sand of shame and ultimate regret that accompanies those secrets. A foundation of secrets is tenuous. It may hold for a time, but anything built on it is forever stunted in its potential and only one modest tremor away from total collapse.

It may seem stilted to ascribe such ponderous themes to a jukebox musical whose storyline is scaffolding for the music of Abba, the Swedish band that dominated the global pop charts between 1972 and 1982. Abba was formed when two married couples combined to provide the soundtrack for the lagging edge of the Baby Boom generation. “Dancing Queen,” “Super Trouper,” “Take a Chance on Me” – these are the songs to which a generation danced the bump and the bus stop. How seriously can we take a plot stretched thin over the words of “S.O.S.,” “Chiquitita,” and “Money, Money, Money?” But somehow it works. Sophie discovers that the identity she is looking for in an absent father has been within her all along, and Donna, Sophie’s mother, learns that she is worthy to be loved and the past can be redeemed. In the able hands of director and choreographer Amy Jones, the experienced Playhouse cast makes it all ridiculously fun.

From the first scene where Sophie (Emily Fink) is reunited with her BFF/bridesmaids Ali (Maddie Franke) and Lisa (Tiffany Chalothorn), the opening night audience was swept up in the gorgeous sets, the colorful and sometimes whimsical costumes, the believable acting, the joint-dislocating dance moves, and the ear-caressing, soul-stirring, finger-popping vocal performances. There are no weak links in this cast and the current crop of Playhouse apprentices do not merely add volume to the choral arrangements and bodies to the dance routines. Like ganache on a layer cake they give a wonderful richness to the production with talent that bodes well for future Playhouse endeavors.

“Mamma Mia” has a proven track record with audiences, giving any cast a leg up on a successful run. The Playhouse troupe uses that leg up to vault tall buildings in a single bound. There is an overall chemistry that gives off both heat and light, especially in the reunion of mother Donna (Mary Mossberg) and her two friends who date their friendship to the time when they were young, talented, and needed no man to complete them. Rosie (Tauren Hagans), a confirmed independent sort, is Ethel to Tanya’s Lucy (Angie Schworer), a leggy blonde who has left the high road to travel the rocky path of serial matrimony. They are here to prop up Donna, the self-sufficient and occasionally cynical hotelier, as she tries to appear happy for a daughter, who in her opinion is too young to be closing off her options by tying herself to a man. The choreography of Tanya and Rosie first-fighting over and then trying to untangle themselves on their shared room’s one bed is brilliant in itself and is only one example of the physical comedy they showcase.

The three potential dads — Sam (Sean Hayden), Bill (JP Sarro) and Harry (Jason Watson) — are thrown together in an awkward circumstance, but each actor brings to his character a style and personality that complements rather than competes with the others. Each is likeable in a different way and you don’t want any one of them to be left out or disappointed. Starry-eyed Sophie and the earnest Sky make a handsome bride and groom. Fink and Phillips skillfully portray a superficial, naïve quality that keeps the audience from fully buying into the wisdom of their characters’ imminent union.

Since Mamma Mia is a jukebox musical, the unseen Playhouse musicians under the direction of Alex Shields are the fuel, the oxygen and the spark without which the explosion of talent on stage couldn’t happen. They have that rare quality of being able to blend so perfectly with the action that they become part of the audience’s collective unconscious. It takes a conscious effort to notice the instrumental backing apart from everything else, but it’s worth it every now and then.

While there are no weak singers in this production, Mary Mossberg as Donna and Sean Hayden as Sam have some of the more significant opportunities to soar, and they don’t disappoint. The dancing is superb and the actors’ moves are never less than dynamic even in the most poignant moments.

One of the real strengths of both the story and the casting is that there is welcome diversity on stage. Different ages, races, body types, genders and sexual orientations are represented, adding to the depth and fun. When Pepper (Travante Baker), a slight, brown-skinned, young cabana boy makes a move on tall, blonde, aging-but-still-smoking-hot Tanya, his physical energy, gymnastic skill and youthful virility scorch the stage. And when Rosie sings “Take a Chance on Me” to Bill, we see two committed loners finally let down a lifetime of defenses and tentatively move toward one another. The tentative trickle of emotion becomes a torrential release and we thrill at the possibility that two robust human beings can engage in both unbridled joy and animal lust in each other’s presence.

It is always satisfying when the Playhouse set designers, lighting and sound technicians and costumers tackle a production that dramatically showcases their talent and creativity. The set masterfully evoked a seaside ambiance. Ashli Arnold Crump used all the vibrant colors of a Greek isle in her costuming, but she also got to go retro in the extreme with Donna and the Dynamos. Sophie’s pre-wedding nightmare dream sequence was especially surreal with the ensemble dancers outfitted in everything from neon body suits to top hats and tails.

Some critics have dismissed “Mamma Mia” as a mercenary effort by Abba to keep the gravy train rolling as their popularity declined. Tell that to the millions of theater patrons who have enjoyed the musical on Broadway and beyond. It’s the longest running jukebox musical in Broadway history. The popularity should silence most cynics, and even if you don’t remember being a huge fan of Abba, you probably can sing along with their music. Instead of being cheesy, making Abba’s catalog of hits the soundtrack of a fun story gives them even greater appeal.
When the curtain closed on Friday night, it was a very good thing that no one was ready to leave. Anyone tempted to dash out at the end of Sophie’s “I Have a Dream” would miss the three-song full-ensemble encore — worth a $45 theater seat by itself. The only thing missing in this sensational summertime show was a surgeon general’s warning in the playbill: These songs may be infectious.

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David Cameron is the Lightning’s theater reviewer.