“Mamma Mia” has people dancing in the aisles at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres.
The Abba-scored musical may be 20 years old, but it’s been shot through with fresh energy in Michael Brindisi’s exuberant staging that opened over the weekend. With an assist from scenic designer Nayna Ramey, choreographer Tamara Kangas Erickson and conductor Andrew Cooke, Chanhassen has been converted into a bouncy Greek island with an abstracted wave and an open playing space where ensemble members get their groove on while pulling double duty to change the set.
That same sense of fun permeates the acting, transporting audiences to the isle where independent taverna owner Donna (Kersten Rodau) is rekindling memories and rethinking life choices just as her daughter, Sophie (Jessica Fredrickson), prepares for her wedding day.
Donna has invited girlfriends Tanya (Michelle Barber) and Rosie (Therese Walth). All three were part of a singing group when they were younger.
Sophie, who grew up without a father, read her mother’s old diary. Now she has invited three of her mother’s former lovers, all potentially her biological father: architect Sam (John-Michael Zuerlein), onetime headbanger and current London banker Harry (Michael Gruber) and adventurer Bill (Jay Albright). Donna bedded all of them one hot summer.
There’s a reason “Mamma Mia!” played on Broadway for 5,758 performances and is the fastest selling show in Chanhassen’s 50-year history. The clever jukebox musical pairs Abba’s super-familiar dance tunes with contemporary messaging.
Playwright Catherine Johnson embedded the work with a strong feminist narrative that wears its advocacy and politics very lightly. It’s about women having the same freedoms as men to soar or mess up. It’s also about women determining their own destinies and relationships.
And “Mamma Mia!” reclaims disco, that much maligned music, as a herald of freedom.
Like all Chanhassen shows, “Mamma Mia!” is intimate and interactive, with plenty of action spilling into the aisles. And it features some entertaining performances — stage work that leaves you smiling.
In terms of timing, delivery and charisma, leading lady Rodau kills it as Donna. Her stellar turn comes despite the fact that she was reportedly under the weather for opening night.
Daughter Sophie is supposed to be 20, and Fredrickson is clearly more experienced than that, but she plays the young adult’s impetuousness and naiveté with flair. And her “The Name of the Game,” a duet with Albright’s Bill, is notable.
Actually, “Mamma Mia!” is studded with standout turns. Barber brings Broadway-caliber wit and charisma to the role of Tanya, who’s courted by young stud Pepper (the athletic and gifted Rush Benson). Benson’s Pepper literally tumbles and flips for her, and Barber’s performance makes us see why.
Walth’s Rosie is a font of comic joy.
And the men do well, too. Zuerlain has deft timing and musical chops. Gruber is brilliantly affecting. And Albright gives us adventurer Bill with meekness and tunnel vision. But the show is not about them. They are extras in this story of “dancing queens.”