If Donna and the Dynamos isn’t the most popular group Halloween costume this year, we should all be shocked. The smash hit jukebox musical “Mamma Mia!” has made quite a triumphant reemergence into the mainstream this year, and many theater companies, including the Center REPertory Company in Walnut Creek, anticipated this when selecting which shows they would put on. It may not have been the most ambitious, avant-garde choice, but “Mamma Mia!” tends to be guaranteed to get ABBA-loving butts in seats. The musical’s popularity exists for a reason: It’s a nonstop blast. Center Rep’s performance honors this tradition of what can only be described as musical hedonism.
“Mamma Mia!” follows 20-year-old Sophie (Giana Gambardella) on the days leading up to her wedding. But her wedding is missing its final ingredient — a father to give her away at the altar. When she finds the diary of her mother Donna (Lynda DiVito), Sophie finds that she has three possible fathers: divorced architect Sam (Noel Anthony), free-spirited Australian Bill (Keith Pinto) or former headbanger Harry (Mark Farrell). Sophie invites all three to the wedding and sets out to determine which one might be her real father. The resulting ABBA-scored extravaganza is aptly described by Donna’s best friend Rosie (Leanne Borghesi) as “very Greek.”
It’s really, really hard to botch a production of “Mamma Mia!” but that’s not to discredit the delightful work of Center Rep. It’s fail-safe, indulgent, sing-along supreme, but audience members are likely fresh off a viewing of the much-adored film sequel “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again.” The star-studded follow-up likely set expectations pretty high (for just about everyone except Anthony, whose on-screen counterpart Pierce Brosnan isn’t exactly hard to vocally outmatch).
While each actor pulled their weight in this production, it was Borghesi as Rosie, playing alongside Alison Quin as Tanya, who stole the show again and again. Whether it was Tanya swinging bunches of grapes from her breasts during the wholesome ballad “Chiquitita” or Rosie yanking off Bill’s belt moments before the wedding is set to commence, the two leaned heavily on the bold, sexual energy that lends the duo its comedy. And as they, accompanied by Donna, paraded around the stage, donning white disco get-ups and belting “Super Trouper,” not even the grumpiest audience members could have said a damn word against it.
Disco get-ups like these are something of a trademark of “Mamma Mia!” and costume designer Maggi Yule has not disappointed. Shiny, brightly colored jumpsuits, enormous belts and platform boots were on proud display, especially in the show’s finale. We’ll never really know why “Mamma Mia!” needs three encore numbers, but if anyone was complaining, they were drowned out by the cheering crowd passionately singing and dancing along.
A few moments felt off, but only comically so — for example, during the sexually charged number “Lay All Your Love on Me,” Sophie’s fiance Sky (Sean Okuniewicz) tries sincerely to seduce her, but not with a romantic caress. Rather, he sings the flirtatious lyrics while putting on a wetsuit and slowly, sensually zipping it up. We can appreciate the commitment to the gesture, but it’s not quite the mating dance anyone expected. Similarly amusing were the constant freeze frames in which one character would sing tenderly while the background was locked in often peculiar positions, such as when Harry finds himself frozen and hunched over with his pointer finger inexplicably pointing toward his cheek.
There’s not a pretentious bone in the “Mamma Mia!” skeleton, so it’s often in ridiculous moments like these that the show only endears itself further. And that’s not to say the Center Rep could do no wrong — a massive part of this show’s success can be attributed to the vocal power of its cast. After all, the main key to “Mamma Mia!” is unwavering commitment to its absurdity –– which can take some serious gusto and a substantial supply of energy. But these key elements the Center Rep supplied in droves, and it is in this infectious commitment that the cast’s real strength lies.