And now two outings to post-pandemic theatre are done. This could get to be a habit.
This time, the outing was to Mamma Mia at 5-Star Theatricals (nee Cabrillo Music Theatre) in Thousand Oaks. This was to be the second show in the 2019-2020 season, premiering in March 2020. We all know what happened in March 2020, and this cast, and the sets, and the preparations all sat waiting… until things came back to the stage this month. But as they say, Mamma Mia, boy the landscape is crowded now. This year is the 20th anniversary of the Broadway premiere of the show, and theatres left and right are doing it. Canyon Theatre Guild in Santa Clarita just extended their production; and La Mirada is kicking it off next weekend. Perhaps it is the upbeat show we need right now. Perhaps it is good that these other theatres are doing it, because we saw the last performance of the show at 5-Star this afternoon, so you’ll need to find someplace else to see it.* But I do hope this description piques your interest in 5-Star’s production, because the remainder of their season looks excellent: Something Rotten; The Addams Family; and Newsies.
(*: So why did we see the last show, when normally we see the first Saturday night? Because when it had its original dates, it stomped on our tickets to Spongebob Squarepants, and it was easier to move 5-Star — and due to confusion, we ended up at the Sunday matinee, and those dates carried over to the reschedule)
This was our second time seeing Mamma Mia; the first was back in January 2019 at Cupcake Theatre. I’m going to adapt my synopsis from what I wrote for that production:
The basics of the story (which was written by Catherine Johnson, and originally conceived by Judy Cramer) are as follows: A young woman, Sophie, lives on a Greek island with her mom, Donna, who runs a taverna. Sophie (20) is about to get married to a fellow, Sky. There’s one problem: She doesn’t know who her dad is. She finds her mom’s diary, and discovers three men who slept with her mom around the time she would have been conceived, and invites them to her wedding, unbeknownst to her mom. Also coming to the wedding are two of her mom’s best friends: Tanya and Rosie, who used to be in a singing group with her (mom): Donna and the Dynamos. As they then say, hijinks follow as the mom discovers the potential dads — Sam, Bill, and Harry; all three men come to believe they are the dad and offer to walk Sophie down the aisle; and past history is uncovered and revisited. All of this is built and engineered to fit in the music of Abba (music and lyrics by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, with additional songs by Stig Anderson, and additional material and arrangements by Martin Koch), meaning that some scenes are specifically contrived to make a song fit in, and ultimately do nothing to advance the plot or grow the character. That’s the nature of a jukebox musical: the story is shaped to fit the music, as opposed to the proper approach of making the music serve the story.
In any case, going back to the uncomfortable incidents: Uncomfortable is a good word for this, for there are points where the storyline veers into the uncomfortable. Think about the scene around “Gimme Gimme Gimme” (at least I think that’s the scene) where Sophie and her friends are dancing with (and seemingly seducing) the dads. He’s old enough to be your father — literally. Here we have a bunch of 20-something girls seducing 45+ men. A bit off to me. Similarly, there’s a scene in Act II — built to make a specific song work — about a 20-something guy chasing a 45+ woman. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with older men or women — I’m an older man, myself — but within the story it created this strange vibe. But perhaps that was just my perceptions — I’m not sure anyone else picked up on it.
But other than that, the story was slight. This is not a deep show. It is a romantic comedy on stage; a true “chick flick” romance. The audience ate it up: the loved the music, they loved the dance, they loved the romance. They loved the happy ending, and the sheer joy that Abba’s music brings to the stage (their music has always been a sheer delight). As my wife noted, in the end the story here doesn’t matter much. Does it ever in a jukebox musical? You’re just going to have a good time. Don’t overthink it; go with the flow and have fun. There are a bunch of talented actors on stage, with wonderful voices. There’s great dancing. There’s music you know and love. Everyone ends up happy. What more can you want?
This time as I watched the show, the scenes with the age difference didn’t strike me quite as uncomfortable: perhaps it was the fact we were further away from the action; perhaps it was the staging. They went a bit more for the humor this time. Instead, I had two different observations this time. The first was some ponderings on why this is such a successful show. I think part of it is that it isn’t just beautiful young men and women dancing. This musical shows middle-aged people as sexy: both Donna and her friends, and the three potential dads are all portrayed as sexy even thought they are older, and that strikes a positive note in the older audiences that attend theatre. The second pondering I had was a re-examination of the show in light of today’s understanding of past cultural problems. And you know what? This show fares pretty well. There isn’t a lot of major sexual stereotyping going on; Donna certainly doesn’t reflect traditional values. The point of the musical isn’t the marriage at the it. It fits very well into today’s cultural zeitgeist. The musical also doesn’t depend on particular casting: a completely color blind casting would work just as good. That’s nice to see.
One of the things that makes this production stand out is its production values and staging. One of the things I like about Cabrillo/5-Star is that it truly lives up to its former slogan “Broadway in your Backyard”. They present Broadway-caliber shows, with Broadway production values, at the regional level. They draw upon top national talent for the leads (and top local talent), and have a great knack of identifying up-and-coming talent from the Southern California talent pool. This production, under the direction of well-known Southern California musical director Richard Israel, was no exception. Israel knows how to bring out the best in his acting team: these folks were enjoying being back on stage, and they did a great job of having fun with their characters and broadcasting that fun to the audience. We always enjoy shows he directs, whether here, at Actors Co-Op, at the late Colony Theatre, or at other small theatres throughout Los Angeles.
(Image source: 5-Star Theatricals Facebook Page)
Let’s turn to the casting. In the lead positions of the story were Kim Huber Donna Sheridan and Nicolette Norgaard Sophie Sheridan. We’ve seen Huber many times before, and she was excellent in this production: strong singing, strong dancing, and she brought a certain gravitas to the role. I read an article on Huber from VC On Stage: she evidently didn’t perform or do streaming during the quarantine; this was her first post-COVID performance. She came back strong, and you could tell she was just having fun being back in her element. As for Norgaard, this was our first time seeing her on stage, and we were very impressed. She has a very strong voice, and brought quite a bit of fun to the role. We were watching her face and movement closely during the show, and this was much more than just song and dance. She really became the young bride, and it was fun.
Donna’s cohert consisted of Sandy Bainum Tanya and Lisa Dyson Rosie. Neither role goes very deep on character development: Tanya is the blonde who is into money and many marriages; Rosie is the opposite–middle ages, always single, and a bit of that militant feminist. Both were strong performers and captured the comic sensibilities well (I’ll note Dyson was actually an alternate for the Cupcake Theatre version we saw). I particularly like Dyson’s character and how she blossomed and had fun with the role.
The dads were portrayed by Eric Martsolf Sam Carmichael ; Brayden Hade Harry Bright ; and Christopher Robert Smith Bill Austin. We’d seen Hade before in the role; he played Harry in the Cupcake version, and brought that comfort with the role to 5-Star. Then, as now, he was fun to watch. Martsolf brought a nice paternalism to Sam and a strong singing voice. Smith’s Bill didn’t leave as much as a character impression, but I think that has to do more with the writing than any performance issues. I truly enjoyed the performances of all three.
Closing out the group of main characters was Max DeLoach Sky. His character isn’t built up well, but when we saw him there was just a comfort and a gentleness about him that made him likeable. He had a nice singing voice in his duets with Norgaard.
The next tier of characters blended together as the story doesn’t give them strong personalities, and you don’t see them as identified individuals often enough to distinguish them apart: Alexa Vellanoweth Ali ; Kat Monzon Lisa ; Christopher Jewell Valentin Pepper ; and Anthony Broccoli Eddie. I’ll note that Valentin did the same role in the Cupcake Theatre production, and both Vellanoweth and Monzon are 5-Star regulars. All were strong singers and dancers.
Rounding out the cast were the members of the ensemble (additional named roles noted), the pit singers, and the alternates. The Ensemble consisted of Julian Xavier Father Alexandrios ; Parker Blakely (FB); James Everts; Kristi Hawkesworth; A J Morales; Taleen Shrikian; Stephanie Urko; and Rachael Yeomans. The off-stage singers were Ananya Badami, Thomas Hollow, Tyler Luff, Nathaniel Mark, Kaitlin Maxwell, and Emilie Mirvis. Chelle Denton was the alternate for Donna/Tanya/Rosie. The ensemble was strong in both singing and dancing, but it was hard to match the standouts to the names. The off-stage singers were fun to watch via binoculars from the Mezzanine. Some were really getting into the acting for the show; others were doing the occasional cell-phone check during the quiet times. But they brought that nice extra layer to the Abba sound that made it extra special.
Speaking of sound: 5-Star / Cabrillo is well known for the quality orchestra they bring to the table at every performance — generally due to the efforts of Darryl Tanikawa (FB) Orchestra Contractor. Under the direction of Anthony Lucca Music Director, Conductor, Keyboard, the orchestra consisted of Lucca and Lloyd Cooper (FB) Keyboard 2 ; Chris Kimbler (FB) Keyboard 3 ; Tom Griffin (FB) Keyboard 4 ; Steve Bethers Acoustic & Electric Guitars ; Eric Rautenberg Electric & 12 String Acoustic Guitars ; Shane Harry (FB) Electric Bass ; Steve Pemberton Set Drums ; and Tyler Smith (FB) Percussion.
Lastly, we turn to the production aspects of the show. Adding to Israel’s direction was the dance, choreographed by Stephanie Landwehr Choreographer. The dance in this show is very much the 80s style of Abba, and Landwehr captured that very well. Jean-Yves Tessier Lighting Design and 5-Star regular Jonathan Burke (FB) Sound Design did a great job of establishing mood and place. Sets were from 3-D Theatricals. Supporting these design elements were Cindy Peltola Costume Design; Luis Ramirez Hair and Wig Design and Alex Choate (FB) Prop Design. Others in the production team included Talia Krispel Production Stage Manager; Lewis Wilkenfeld Producer; Fresh Interactive (FB) Marketing; David Elzer/Demand PR Publicity. 5-Star no longer seems to have an artistic director; Richard Storrs is Chair of the board; Cindy Murray is Executive Director; and Tal Fox is Assoc. Producer and Casting Director. As always, I acknowledge the COVID Compliance Officer, Erik Monak, who ensures the performers and audience are safe.
Alas, we saw the last performance of Mamma Mia from 5-Star of this run. See the 5-Star Theatricals page for information on their upcoming season.
Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member (modulo the COVID break). I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted (or I’ll make a donation to the theatre, in lieu of payment). I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB), Broadway in Hollywood (FB), the Ahmanson Theatre (FB), and we have a membership at The Pasadena Playhouse (FB). We were subscribing at Actors Co-op (FB) and the Musical Theatre Guild (FB) prior to COVID; they have not yet resumed productions. We have also been subscribers at the Soraya/VPAC (FB), although we are waiting a year before we pick that up again. Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups. Note to publicists or producers reading this: here’s my policy on taking comp tickets. Bottom-Line: Only for things of nominal value, like Fringe.
For right now, we’re pretty much sticking with shows that come as part of our subscriptions or are of interest through our memberships. That may change later in 2022. November brings Hamilton at Broadway in Hollywood (FB) and Head over Heels at The Pasadena Playhouse (FB). December brings The Bands Visit at Broadway in Hollywood (FB) and A Christmas Carol at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). Turning to 2022: January brings Everyone’s Talking About Jamie at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). February brings Something Rotten at 5 Star Theatricals (FB); lastly, March brings The Lehman Trilogy at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB), and Ann at The Pasadena Playhouse (FB).
As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-Lemons, Footlights, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, On Stage 411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget (although I know it is outdated and need to update it). Want to learn about all the great theatre in Southern California? Read my post on how Los Angeles (and its environs) is the best area for theatre in the Country (again, I need to review this for the post-COVID theatre landscape)!