Hannah Church plays Sophie and Kristin Markiton is her mother, Donna, in “Mamma Mia!” at the Aurora Theatre. CONTRIBUTED BY CHRISTOPHER BARTELSKI

Theater review: Aurora’s ‘Mamma Mia!’ appeals to ‘Dancing Queen’ in you

“Mamma Mia!” — the ABBA jukebox musical — opened on Broadway in October 2001. I remember this vividly because when I went up to New York to see it, the smoke was still wafting from ground zero.

It was a horrific scene, but the city put on a strong front. People said maybe this giddy musical, about a girl on the cusp of marriage who yearns to know her real father, was the kind of silly escapism that would do the heart good.

I had my doubts, but in the end, I didn’t mind “Mamma Mia!”

Sure, the story of the jaded innkeeper, her upbeat daughter and the men (not in) their lives felt stitched together with Scotch tape. But after all the campy shenanigans, ridiculous plot twists and over-the-top-costumes, it managed to bring out my inner “Dancing Queen,” which to be perfectly honest is not that difficult.

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Apparently lots of viewers felt the same: “Mamma Mia!” lit up the Great White Way for 14 years and spawned a Meryl Streep movie and a forthcoming sequel. And now that its national tour has ended, it will be produced by regional theaters all over America.

First in line for the Atlanta region is Aurora Theatre. If you plan to see it, better get your “Money, Money, Money” together and go online — quick. At press time, the Lawrenceville run was 96 percent sold out. However, the production will move to Georgia Tech’s Ferst Center for the Arts for a second run in June.

While super-trouper Aurora has produced some superb material over the years, this Justin Anderson-directed effort is, to put it gently, rather uneven. Often, it’s cringe-worthy. As in, “Darling can you hear me, S.O.S.”

For those who don’t know the story, allow me to explain: As Sophie (Hannah Church) prepares to marry Sky (Nick Arapoglou) on the Greek island where her mother, Donna (Kristin Markiton), owns a B&B, she sends letters to three men she reads about in her mother’s diary. One of them, she surmises, must be her long-lost father.

Marcie Millard, Kristin Markiton and Terry Henry are on the verge of reuniting as Donna and the Dynamos in “Mamma Mia!” at Aurora Theatre. CONTRIBUTED BY CHRISTOPHER BARTELSKI
Photo: For the AJC

Meanwhile, fun-loving Rosie (Marcie Millard) and Tanya (Terry Henry) show up, and we learn that they were once part of a girl group with Donna. Their signature songs just happen to be the old disco tunes we know as ABBA’s greatest hits.

That’s the setup for Catherine Johnson’s book, which some souls (more generous than this one) have compared to a Shakespearean farce. Indeed, love will blossom on this time-swept Aegean island, though perhaps not in the way we expect.

Let’s be real: “Mamma Mia!” is not exactly “Twelfth Night,” nor, despite its setting, “The Tempest.” The music is classic, but the plot has limitations. For many audience members, this won’t matter. They come for entertainment, not insight.

Choreographer Ricardo Aponte’s youthful chorus has plenty of energy. But there are moments early on when it feels like the ensemble is making up its own choreography, just jumping around willy-nilly, though I do like the number with the snorkeling flippers.

While the camp aesthetic lends itself to outrageous fashion, designer Alan Yeong dresses Donna and the Dynamos in outfits that at times make them look like sequinned Teletubbies. And Sophie’s dream sequence is truly a wedding nightmare: “Day of the Dead” meets Stephen Sprouse.

As for the performances, Markiton, Church and Arapoglou are all quite talented. But here, Markiton’s Donna is more brittle than likable, and Arapoglou doesn’t quite exude the California surfer-dude aura that you expect from Sky. Likewise, Joseph Pendergrast’s Pepper is hardly the kind of hunk you imagine as prey for world-weary sophisticate Tanya.

Millard makes for a rather zaftig and mature Rosie — not the most elastic mover. Her character’s big song gets caught in her throat (an intentional comedic touch, that is). But Rosie ultimately seduces Travis Smith’s unsuspecting Bill, one of Sophie’s three potential fathers and the best actor in this trio. Greg Frey’s Harry (another potential dad) is funniest when he unveils his true self. And Chris Kayser, fine actor though he may be, doesn’t have the vocal chops required to play Donna’s ex, Sam. Kayser looks out of his element, almost embarrassed to be here.

Aurora’s “Mamma Mia!” brings back all the doubts I had nearly 17 years ago, when it opened on Broadway. It’s a clunker, but it’s also impervious to criticism. For audiences willing to “Take a Chance,” even when it’s not in top form, it’s the equivalent of armchair travel, guaranteed to transport you to a place that is pure pop gossamer and fun.

THEATER REVIEW

“Mamma Mia!”

Through April 22. 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Sundays. $40-$75. Aurora Theatre, 128 E. Pike St., Lawrenceville. 678-226-6222, auroratheatre.com. The show transfers to Ferst Center for the Arts at Georgia Tech for an additional 12 shows June 9-24. tickets.arts.gatech.edu.

Bottom line: Still silly after all these years.

The American singing competition was created by Simon Fuller. It began airing on Fox June 11, 2002. It ended its first run April 7, 2016. It's spawned Billboard chart-toppers such as Kelly Clarkson and Jennifer Hudson. Judges have included Mariah Carey, Randy Jackson and Nicki Minaj. The critically-acclaimed series was revived by ABC in 2017.
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