“Take a Chance” on “Mamma Mia”

By Carrie Moore 

Judging by the headline, you’re either: a) wondering why I’m encouraging you to “take a chance” on the third play of the Black Hills Playhouse’s (BHP) 74th season (is is that bad?!) b) laughing at my clever pun (because I sure did!) or c) singing the words to the famed ABBA hit. And if your answer is “A,” then let’s just get right to the review so you can hurry along and get your ticket!

“Mamma Mia” is written by British playwright Catherin Johnson, based ABBA’s beloved songs. Music for the production was composed by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, former members of the band. The jukebox musical, which features nearly two dozen ABBA songs, is the eighth-longest running play in the history of Broadway.

“Mamma Mia” takes place in 2000 on a small island in Greece, where 20-year-old Sophie Sheridan (Jacquelyn Kiefner) is preparing to marry her fiancé, Sky (Alex Rudd). The very first scene we learn that Sophie dreams of having her father walk her down the aisle, except, she doesn’t know who he is. After discovering her mother’s diary, she narrows it down to three men, all of whom receive invitations to the wedding. Oh yes, she did.

Meanwhile, Donna Sheridan (Josey Miller) begins receiving guests at her taverna, including her friends Tanya (Jenna Green) and Rosie (Jenna Lee Moore) — former backup singers of “Donna and the Dynamos” — and Sophie’s friends, Ali (Lera Zamaraeva) and Lisa (Bethany Springs).

Josey Miller takes center stage as Donna Sheridan. Photo courtesy of Black Hills Playhouse/Jonathan Allender-Zivic

And like all schemes, it quickly goes south when Donna’s three former lovers — and Sophie’s probable father — show up. There’s Sam Carmichael (Justin Speck), a wealthy architect, Bill Austin (Jeff Kingsbury), a travel and adventure writer, and Harry Bright (Dan Workman), a British banker. As expected, Donna doesn’t take their showing up well. But their appearance is just what she needs to pull herself up and find the woman she once was.

It’s a fun, breezy comedy as Sophie searches for her father and love interests show themselves, but underneath, there’s a poignant story of two generations who explore what fulfills them, as well as the struggle of moving on. 

I’m so impressed with the casting of Sophie and Donna. Kiefner and Miller are both strong female leads with strong vocals to back their acting up. 

Miller’s quick and deadpanned reactions were hilarious, especially when her character was reunited with her former lovers. Donna is very honest and straight, but also vulnerable, which Miller touchingly showed. She also delivered some of the biggest solos. “Money Money Money” was a great introduction to Miller’s vocals. She was also great when performing with her “band,” whether it be “Super Trooper” or “Dancing Queen.” Coming off of “Side Show,” where Miller was Daisy, I didn’t know if she could best herself. But, she can. And she did. Her voice is so clear, sharp and soulful — even when spinning on tables and running all over the stage. Miller is great musical actor and shines in “Mamma Mia.”

Kiefner is a wonderful, determined Sophie, who strives to have what her mother never did: a stable, traditional family. Kiefner is bright and energetic, perfect for the young woman, who is ready to explore more. Kiefner’s vocals are just as bubbly as her, shining bright. You could definitely feel the emotion through her singing, like in the prologue or “I Have a Dream. She was a joy to watch sing and act with others (“Voulez-Vous”).

But more so, “Mamma Mia” breaks barriers showing these two strong female characters. As a single mother, Donna breaks the stereotype of both parents raising a child, showing that there is still love, laughter and happiness. And whether one realizes it or not, “Mamma Mia” is very empowering, as it celebrates the rise of female society (the taverna, for example), refuses to shame Donna for her promiscuity and encourages women to follow their goals over societal pressures. 

Green and Moore are great choices for Donna’s friends. Green’s Tanya has been married multiple times, but is still wild and fun-loving. She’s a big character, which Green plays oh so deliciously. Her number with Darryl D’Angelo Jones (“Does Your Mother Know”) was fun to watch, but really showcases her talent.

Moore’s Rosie is an unmarried, free spirit and author of cookbooks; she’s funny and self-deprecating. Moore was quick with her wit, making some instances that much more hilarious. Her most poignant moment came in the second act, with my favorite song, “Take A Chance on Me.”

Zamaraeva and Springs also portrayed great friends to Sophie, keeping her secret and going with her plan. Both were bubbly and fun and great supports when it came to singing. Both have such beautiful voices.

More importantly, I love that these four characters show the power of friendship, as well as the importance of surrounding yourself with supportive women. That idea was perfectly displayed with Green and Moore’s rendition of “Chiquitita.”

Rudd was wonderful as Sky, the former stockbroker who moved to the island and became smitten with Sophie. Rudd’s vocals are outstanding, commanding the audience as he sings (“Lay All Your Love on Me”). Rudd was very charming and charismatic. 

I don’t think anyone got more laughs than the three gentlemen portraying Donna’s ex-lovers. 

Speck was great as Sam, who has regretted leaving Donna all those years ago. He’s a straight-laced, composed guy, but understands the importance of this second chance. Speck remained a stoic, sure voice in the midst of chaos. He also delivered a couple of great one-liners (“I’m here to say ‘hi’”), as well as sang in a couple of great numbers (“S.O.S.,” “Thank You For the Music”).

Workman’s Harry, a well respected banker — but once upon a time, quite a head banger — was fun. He had a great British accent and was always a joy to watch while dancing, especially in large group numbers. Harry, who has a lot of past regrets, makes up for it with a lot of singing, which Workman nailed with a very cheerful and uplifting voice. 

As “Sherwood’s” Prince Hal and “Side Show’s” Sir, I was beginning to wonder if we were every going to have a “nice” Jeff Kingsbury this season. Thankfully, my prayers were answered with Bill, a writer who has been around the world, but never really found what he’s been looking for. Bill is quite the character, to which Kingsbury is the perfect guy to play him! He’s lighthearted, fun and quick witted — and has the best reactions. Bill is involved in a lot of comedic moments — whether it be with singing or dancing — and Kingsbury nails every one. (He really gets the laughs in “Take a Chance on Me.” You’ll see!)

The rest of the cast is rounded out with Darryl D’Angelo Jones as Pepper and Jack Warring as Eddie, employees at Donna’s taverna. Both exuded energy and zest, whether they were rolling around on the ground or flirting with Donna’s friends. 

“Mamma Mia” also has an ensemble, which includes Caleb Olson, Kenzie Henderson, Kevin Earlywine, Mia Hilt, Nicholas Ducote and Cole Kennedy, who do everything from portraying wedding guests, taverna-stayers, sharks (yes, you read that right) and background singers and dancers. To put it mildly, I’m in shock and awe of the quality of work the ensemble put in to the show. The rigorous choreography (done by Speck) looked effortless, thanks to the dedication and precision of the entire cast. But truly, “Mamma Mia” wouldn’t have been anywhere as show stopping without the ensemble, some of which hardly every left the stage. (And FYI – most of the cast members were also in “Side Show,” which ran prior to this production. So while performing that on stage, they were in daily rehearsals for “Mamma Mia.” Are you kidding me?!) A standout was Kennedy, who led a couple of dance numbers, really wowing the crowd.

Speck (aided by Holly Knox Perli), as well as musical director Vonnie Houchin, created the perfect marriage of fun and show stopping numbers. The vocals and choreography were so ambitious and over the top, that “Mamma Mia” felt like an ABBA concert. The moves were so fitting of ABBA, yet had the quality of a Broadway musical — like when Miller would stand on moving tables and was aided by other cast members. And like I said with “Side Show,” this year’s cast is amazing when it comes to vocals — the best I have probably ever seen. We the audience were definitely witnesses to a very unique experience on stage.

Kudos to director Emily Cherry for overseeing such a large cast and keeping “Mamma Mia” fun and light. The play was light and constantly moving, making it that much easier for the audience to stay for the music, but get sucked into the plot. There was a lot to oversee, no doubt, and Cherry was just the person to do that!

I really loved the “Mamma Mia” set, done by Kathy Voecks. It truly looked like a Greek taverna, right down to the architecture of the building, the rounded stone steps and the color palette. There were also little touches — like amaranthus hanging from the tops of the windows and a citrus tree — that really worked to make it feel like you were on an inhabited island. I also like the peek of ocean from the windows. It was subtle; not overly done, which could have the potential of being cheesy.

But I think my most favorite aspect of the set was how it worked for the actors. There were tables and beds on wheels, which doubled as mini stages. I’ve already said how Miller jutted across the stage on the table. It’s just a really smart, fun way to make pieces of the set functional and entertaining. 

When you think of ABBA, you probably think of the crazy spandex costumes, adorned with glitter. While there was some of that — come on! It’s ABBA! — 90 percent of the costumes were relatable. Amber Marisa Cook brought the Grecian feel to her costumes with a beautiful palette — blues, turquoises and whites — fun patterns and textures. When we first meet Donna, she is simply dressed in jeans and a flowy top — because she has a business to run! It’s practical, but also feels cool and Grecian-like. 

My favorite outfits were both Sophie’s wedding dress and Donna’s mother-of-the-bride dress, because of the detail Cook and her team put into it. They were colorful and detailed with lace and beading. Simple and gorgeous. (I also really liked the usage of fresh flowers for the wedding – but I may be biased there!)

But now onto the spandex! There are a couple instances where multiple actors are wearing the iconic ABBA disco suits. Yes, a full body suit, complete with flared bell bottoms. They were all colorful, fun and flashy. Without the costume, the moment in “Mamma Mia” wouldn’t have been as fun. ABBA would be proud. 

Once again, Christopher George Haug had a fun interoperation to his music. While the audience waits for the show to start — and again at intermission — we are treated to ABBA songs, remastered and performed by other artists from various genres. It was so fun and made me want to stay in my seat to listen. (Seriously, can I get a playlist?)

I really liked how a couple songs had a reverberation, for example, when Sophie had a nightmare. It made the performance seem much more harried and anxious, really reflecting how Sophie was feeling. It was a nice little touch in the production. 

It was clear lighting designer Johnathan Allender-Zivic had a lot of fun with this production. In addition to the disco ball (which I’m sure has to be included with a “Mamma Mia” production), there was a smoke machine and bubbles! But more importantly, a variety of fun colors used to set the tone of the scene, and display the gorgeous set that much more. The spotlight was also used to highlight a particular character, which was smart to do, especially when the entire cast was on stage singing. The lights made the show that much more fun and special.

I think what I love most about the BHP’s “Mamma Mia” is how it brings forth the nostalgic and emotional memories that come with ABBA songs. Hearing certain songs instantly made me recall people and events I have associated with those songs, all while having fun in the moment. I was instantly put in a good mood, just like when I hear an ABBA song, as cheesy at that may be. 

I also love that the BHP wanted to celebrate that fact. “It’s not Shakespeare,” Cherry told me. No, it’s not. It’s pure fun, with a great message of celebrating happiness and love, and choosing to follow your own path, instead of conforming. But fair warning, you will be singing ABBA songs for days to come — like that’s a bad thing? 

“Mamma Mia” runs through Aug. 11 and is rated PG-13. Get your tickets now by visiting blackhillsplayhouse.com.

What did you think of the show? Leave a comment and let us know!