REVIEW: “Mamma Mia!” at Music Guild is a Spectacular, Fun Feast for the Senses
For someone like me, who hadn’t seen a big musical with a big cast – live and in person – in 18 months, getting back to Quad City Music Guild Thursday night for the last dress rehearsal of the new “Mamma Mia!” (after nabbing next to the last spot in the parking lot) was a
My son Josh and I wore masks and sat in the back row – but every one of the 535 seats in the Prospect Park theater is great, because you’re at Music Guild, seeing immensely talented people pursuing their passion: putting on the best possible entertainment and faithfully reflecting some of the greatest shows the musical theater has to offer. Since the start of June, I had been finally back in Q-C theaters to see stellar musical productions at Circa, the Spotlight, and Mississippi Bend Players, but none had the size, scope or the delightful sonic and visual sizzle that “Mamma Mia!” does.
Directed by Colleen Houlihan and music directed by Bob Manasco, the beloved ABBA jukebox
musical (the ninth-longest running show in Broadway history, after closing in 2015), Music Guild rightfully and confidently pulls out all the stops for its first musical with a live, in-person audience in 19 months. Though the wait was painful and interminable, the devoted, highly energetic cast is worth it – they’re true super troupers.
In the silly, sunny story (which does have more intense drama than I remembered), on the fictional Greek island of Kalokairi, 20-year-old Sophie (Olivia Lyman) is preparing to marry her fiancé, Sky (John Whitson). She wants her father to walk her down the aisle but doesn’t know who he is. Sophie discovers her mother’s old diary and finds entries which describe intimate dates with three men — Sam Carmichael (David Miller), Bill Austin (David Baxter) and Harry Bright (Mark McGinn). Sophie believes one of these is her father and, three months before her nuptials, sends each an invitation to her wedding, writing in her mother’s name, Donna (Christina Myatt), without letting her unsuspecting mother know.
Houlihan – who directed 2016’s “Into the Woods” at Music Guild – was forced to postpone the show a full year due to Covid, and in her program note, she wrote: “ABBA is the best quarantine buddy a director could ask for. This musical is on this earth solely to bring joy. And it
is 100% the perfect show to reopen Quad City Music Guild to in-person audiences.
“The stage show has been seen by 60 million people worldwide, with productions mounted in more than 50 countries across six continents,” the program says. “It is a silly, raucous, frivolous romp of musical theater. And I mean that in the best way possible.
“I can tell you that Quad City Music Guild’s production is populated by a group of volunteers (cast, staff, and beyond) who exceeded even my wildest imagination,” Houlihan wrote. “This is a group that lives for live theater. They have desperately missed the stage and all of you… and it shows in these performances. We can all use a break these days.”
And what a break it is – the exotic setting and soaring, complex 23-song score (chock full of hits) offer a breezy, blissful vacation for patrons without having to leave the Quad-Cities.
What is most immediately satisfying is seeing the beautiful set – designed by Luke Vermeire and lit with dazzling variety by Brittney and Robert Crist. Not only is the wire-mesh backdrop lit differently depending on the scene (even including a brief rainbow style), the hanging lights over the stage take on varied hues (green,
naturally for “Money, Money”), colors changing throughout, moving and dancing in their own ways. There’s even an extra layer of lights that frame the proscenium, and a silver disco ball that spins above the front center of the audience. The lighting cues also artfully complement the moods of the show and create a cohesive whole with the set.
The spectacular visuals of “Mamma Mia!” extend to the deeply talented, attractive cast – comprised of some of the best Q-C performers. In her first Guild show since 2014, Olivia Lyman is a perfect, sympathetic Sophie and Christina Myatt is ideal as her strong-willed, independent mom, Donna. Miller, McGinn and Baxter are uniformly strong as the three men and their baby; Chris Castle and Heather Herkelman are a sassy hoot as Donna’s best pals, the Dynamos.
The large ensemble in this “Mamma Mia!” is awfully dynamic also, and some of their best parts come off stage, as they lend tremendous background vocals for virtually every song throughout with gorgeous harmonies. A good example of this is the first act “Chiquitita” – with Myatt, Castle and Herkelman showing off great harmony, and then made even more rich with the off-stage voices. One of the many show highlights is toward the dramatic peak of the second act, with Myatt’s powerful, emotional “The Winner Takes It All,” which also is enlivened with a cushion of caressing background vocals.
The nature of a jukebox musical is that the story is built around the lyrics of existing hits, giving new meaning to many familiar phrases, like
“I don’t want to talk,” “It used to be so nice,” and “Take a chance on me.” That last title of one of ABBA’s biggest hits becomes a come-on for Castle to seduce Baxter’s character, and the lively six ensemble actors play the roles of “the Pips” and make for a super fun number.
In the only duet between Sky and Sophie, Whitson and Lyman shine in “Lay All Your Love On
Me,” which also features a very playful, cute chorus – with guys (and one girl) dancing in flippers, with lots of kicks and taps on the floor. The exuberant choreography here is by Beth Marsoun, and with ABBA’s biggest hit being the infectious “Dancing Queen,” you know there are many opportunities for gleeful dance numbers, which do not disappoint.
The only real disappointment is from the creators of the show – that Sky’s role is so
underwritten, it’s a cardboard, one-dimensional good guy (Whitson made a heavenly, ethereal Tony in Guild’s 2017 “West Side Story”). The closing “I Have a Dream” at the end of the show would have been the perfect chance for Sophie and Sky to sing of their love, together, but it’s really Sophie’s story, I guess, and it is a lovely close nonetheless.
As part of the ecstatic bows (with a new show-bizzy, glittering backdrop), the boisterous cast encourages the audience to get up and sing along with “Dancing Queen” and “Waterloo” – and after a terrible virus forced us to stay isolated for so long, it felt so good to get up and sing with other people (my mask was off!), having the time of our life. The multi-talented Mark McGinn – who showed his guitar ability during the show – returned to play sax during bows. Thank you for the music, indeed! We never knew how much we needed it.
“Mamma Mia!” (at 1584 34th Ave., Moline) will run July 9-11 and 15-18, with performances at 7:30 p.m., except Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $16 for adults, and $11 for children, available at 309-762-6610 or qcmusicguild.com.