Bucks County Playhouse musical is just perfect for a summer evening
The Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, Pennsylvania, continues its 80th season with the musical Mamma Mia!, written by Catherine Johnson with music and lyrics by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus of the group ABBA. It is a sun-drenched musical with a simple story used as a framework for 23 of the group’s songs. Performed by an energetic cast under the direction of John Tartaglia, a star of the musical Avenue Q, it’s the perfect show for a summer evening’s enjoyment.
The 1999 jukebox musical takes place on a small island off the Greek coast. 20-year-old Sophie (Sara Masterson), about to marry Sky (Devin Lewis), wants to have her father at the wedding but doesn’t know who he is. Reading her mother Donna’s (Michelle Dawson) 1979 diary narrows down the choices to three: American architect Sam (Michael Hunsaker), Australian writer/adventurer Bill (Peter Saide), and British banker Harry (Michael Dean Morgan). She sends each man an invitation under Donna’s name without telling Sky or Donna.
Also arriving for the wedding are Donna’s two best friends from her days in the rock group Donna and the Dynamos: thrice-married Tanya (TerraC. MacLeod) and cookbook author Rosie (Danielle Lee Greaves). As the guests arrive at Donna’s taverna old memories and past recriminations arise, leaving Sophie increasingly unsure of herself and her wedding plans.
Director Tartaglia, assisted by choreographer Shannon Lewis, moves the cast through this fast-paced show with fluid grace. Sara Masterson and Devin Lewis have stage chemistry as the two young lovers. Ms. Masterson has an especially lovely voice, showcased in “I Have a Dream.” Michelle Dawson reveals a powerful voice, especially in the ballad “The Winner Takes It All,” and is perfectly matched by Michael Hunsaker in the power duet “SOS.”
Humor is amply provided by Danielle Lee Greaves, TerraC. MacLeod, Michael Dean Morgan, and Peter Saide, performing such numbers as “Our Last Summer,” “Take a Chance on Me,” “Dancing Queen,” and “Does Your Mother Know?” The ensemble pours youthful vitality into their many song and dance numbers, with outstanding performances given by Julius Williams and Alec Cohen as two jack-of-all-trades taverna employees.
Scenic designer Anna Louizos has created a revolving set for the taverna, with the hills and buildings of the island silhouetted against a bright blue Greek sky, beautifully lit by Gina Scherr. Ashley Rose Horton’s costumes conjure up casual relaxation by the ocean side. Music director William Shuler leads a sextet through the many moods of the ABBA song catalogue with rhythmic ease.
While Catherine Johnson’s book provides a non-complex story on which to hang ABBA’s songs, it conveys several feminist themes. These include the power of sisterhood, the strength to be found in a single-parent matriarchal family, and encouragement for women to follow their dreams before settling down—if at all—into marriage. The four main female characters are portrayed as independent women, with Tanya, Rosie, and especially Donna providing role modeling and support for young Sophie.
At first glance, Mamma Mia! might seem like just another evening of nostalgia for 1970s pop music. Yet the story provides humor and, at times, drama, and the songs have been chosen to match the situations in which they’re set. If the songs of ABBA are not to your liking, this show will probably not change your mind. However, if you’re looking for light, breezy entertainment for a summer’s night, you won’t be disappointed by spending time seeing Mamma Mia!