A talented young song-and-dance ensemble and some exhilarating original choreography add up to lively summer fun at Laguna Playhouse for those who don’t mind shelling out big bucks to hear a couple dozen ABBA hits performed to canned karaoke-style backing tracks.

Inspired by the 1968 Gina Lollobrigida comedy Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell, book writer Catherine Johnson adroitly squeezes one hook-blessed, lyrically stilted ABBA hit after another into the tale of a Greece-residing young American who invites a trio of strangers to the seaside village she and her inn-keeper mother Donna call home, in hopes of finding out which of her free-spirited mom’s long-ago loves planted the seed which grew into twenty-year-old Sophie Sheridan, about to marry the man of her dreams.

Elon University sophomore McKenna Wells returns to her Orange County/OCSA roots as Sophie, who informs her two best friends Ali (Kristen Daniels) and Lisa (Aubrie Knapp) that according to her mother’s twenty-one-year-old diary entries, there were three different men who made her Mamma swoon to the words and music of “Honey, Honey.” (“He’s a love machine. Oh, he makes me dizzy.”)

Even bigger news is their impending arrival at the taverna for Sophie’s wedding to Sky (David Šašik).

There’s architect Sam Carmichael (Jonathan Van Dyke), banker Harry Bright (Daniel Berlin), and travel writer Bill Austin (Daryl J. Roth), each of whom dilly-dallied with young Donna over the course of a single month way back when.

Meanwhile, the object of their mutual affection (MaryAnn Carlisle) has her own invitees arriving—single-gal cookbook writer Rosie (Dwan Hayes) and thrice-married, surgically enhanced Tanya (Sophia Swannell), her longtime best friends and former Donna And The Dynamos groupmates.

Before long, Donna has come face to face with the three men who might have fathered Sophie, memories have rushing back, and the title song has Donna wondering out loud, “Mamma Mia, here I go again. My, my, how can I resist you?”

Carlisle gives Donna feisty redheaded girl-next-door appeal and ear-pleasing vocals, but it’s Hayes and Swannell who prove the evening’s most memorable grown-ups, the former investing tomboy Rosie with equal parts sexiness and sass, the latter giving Nicole Kidman a run for her ice-blonde money, her native-Brit accent adding to Tanya’s slinky allure.

Honey-tressed beauty Wells makes for an incandescent Sophie opposite recent UCI grad (and Laguna Playhouse summer-musical favorite) Šašik’s hunky charmer of a Sky, with fabulous foursome Daniels, Knapp, Nazzaro, and Patel making the most of their all too brief sidekick appearances.

Southland staple Berlin follows his scene-stealing trio of Hairspray Male Authority Figures with the most charming of Harrys and Van Dyke gives Sam plenty of romantic appeal, but Roth’s Bill suffers from flat line deliveries and no Aussie accent.

Midwest visitor Karen Babcock Brassea makes a number of refreshing directorial choices (having the show’s eight principals all gathered on stage for Sophie’s “I Have A Dream” is one of them), but it’s as choreographer that the Broadway vet really shines, most particularly in a “Lay All Your Love On Me” that has the Mamma Mia boys executing leapfrogs, ballet pirouettes, and 42nd Street-ready tapping in swim fins no less (and her nightmare-in-black “Under Attack” is pretty darned clever too).

In these numbers and more, Babcock is aided and abetted by as fine an ensemble of young singer-dancers as any choreographer could wish for, Sam Buchanan, Daniels, Tanner Frisbey, Jayden Goodman, Jared Ryan Kaitz (Father Alexandrios), Knapp, Eleni Kutay, Lizzie Menzies, Nazzaro, Patel, Johann Santiago Santos, Šašik, Wells, and Katherine Westrum proving themselves as talented as they are athletic and indefatigable.

Unfortunately for musical director Ricky Pope, the singers he’s coached are hampered in song after song by canned backing tracks that may work in your local karaoke bar or pass muster in a community theater production, but not when a LORT (League Of Resident Theatres) member is charging up to $105 a seat.

No designer receives program credit for Mamma Mia’s presumably rented sets, more colorful than the lackluster Broadway/Touring originals but hardly stunners.

On a more positive note, Alex Crocker-Lakness merits mention for his vibrant lighting design as do P&G Designs’ costumes, Technicolor confections that not only impress, after several regional productions in which every cast member under 25 appeared to be on spring break, it’s refreshing to see Donna’s employees dressed as if they might actually be Greek.

Hannah Alikhani is production stage manager. Keith Lambert is wardrobe coordinator.

Well-heeled theatergoers may not mind paying top dollar to see Mamma Mia! in Laguna Beach (or even notice that there’s not a single live musician on stage or off), not when performances are as crowd-pleasing as the ones now lighting up the Laguna Playhouse stage. On the other hand, those for whom a $65-to-$105 ticket represents a major expenditure might want to spend their hard-earned cash on a production that delivers more bang for their bucks.

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Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach.

–Steven Stanley
July 7, 2019
Photos: Ed Krieger


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