by Beki Pineda

MAMA MIA – Written by Catherine Johnson; Music and Lyrics by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus; Directed by Rod A. Lansberry.  Produced by the Arvada Center (6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, Arvada) through September 30.  Tickets available at 720-898-7200 or arvadacenter.org.

MAMA MIA is one of the best – and one of the worst – musicals ever compiled.  The best because it revisits the ABBA music we have all grown up with and danced to for decades.  The worst because rather than try to tell the ABBA story as most jukebox musicals would have done, it tries instead to force a story out of the music.  I have a vision of Benny and Bjorn sitting at a table with Catherine, the one tasked with writing the story, with a stack of cards containing the names of all the songs in the ABBA catalog.  “OK, if we started on a Greek Island before a wedding, where could we put “Dancing Queen?”  Or “If we had three possible Dads, which songs could each of them sing and why?”  In that way, they tormented a script out of a stack of unrelated – but delightful – music.

So fair warning – you don’t come to see MAMA MIA because of the deep insightful book.  You come because you love the music of the 70’s and the nostalgic warming of the heart that comes when you revisit those good times.  Who can feel bad or think of the outside world of woe when inside they are playing “Dancing Queen” or “Super Trouper” or  “Money Money Money”?  You just have to give in to the familiar melodies and heart-pumping rhythms.  If you can give yourself over to the memories and be content to following the story with a smile while you wait for the next song, you’ll love this evening of music.

That said, this determined cast makes the absolute most – and best – out of the score and the story they are given.  Shannan Steele gives us a Donna that is slightly flawed, indecisive, mildly regretful, but free-spirited.  She’s the woman we always wanted to be.  She allows just the right amount of tears and insecurity to creep into her voice to create a real woman.  Her best friends are delightfully played by Piper Lindsay Arpan and Kitty Skillman Hilsabeck, displaying both sides of the feminine viewpoint of the 70’s.  Piper is the slightly naughty, openly sexy Tanya. Kitty is the more conservative but ready for a good time Rosie.  A younger version of Donna, Mariah MacFarlane plays Sophie, the bride to be and Donna’s daughter.

The cast is balanced by the three good men called forth to play the three possible Dads.  Daniel Robert Sullivan makes his Arvada Center debut as Sam, the one who got away.  If there is a God that listens to the prayers of theatre-goers, he will hear the heartfelt pleas of all the ladies in the audience that Mr. Sullivan be allowed to come back to Arvada soon and often.  With his craggy good looks and self-deprecating air, no wonder Donna swoons.  The Arvada Center actually got Mark Devine to cut his hair and come out of semi-retirement to become Harry Bright, another of the possible Dads . .. . however a little less likely than the other two.  Jeffrey Roark as Bill is the last, equally handsome with his 9:00 shadow facial hair and relaxed attitude.

Seven new singer/dancers and nine returning favorites make up the ensemble of best friends – male and female – and assorted characters.  They bring athleticism and youthful vigor to the intricate choreography of Kitty Hilsabeck, one of Arvada’s unsung hero’s.  Ms Hilsabeck has become a staple as the resident choreographer who always comes up with new and interesting ways to add to the story through dance.  Putting the dancers through their paces to create the flawless routines that characterize an Arvada musical, Ms. Hilsabeck makes it look so easy we, in the audience, think we could get up there and do the same thing.  Whatever they are paying her, it isn’t enough!!

Brian Mallgrave’s sunny Greek courtyard which converts to the inside of the taverna should get a commission for all the tickets he has probably sold for trips to the Greek islands.  If we could all find this island, we’d be there in a heartbeat.  A rosy glow enhanced by Shannon McKinney’s lighting design added to the atmosphere.  Clare Henkel tackled the job of creating not only vacation wear from the era, but the disco duds from a decade earlier.

A fun time was had by all.  You will have a fun time too.

A WOW factor of 9!