Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘Mama Mia!’ a Big, Complex, Hit-Filled Whoop-Dee-Do in De Pere

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Photo caption: At left is Alicia Birder, with Rändi Fay in white top and Ana Lissa Bakken. (Warren Gerds image)

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The story of the musical “Mama Mia!” in 25 words: An independent woman’s grown daughter reads her diary from her youth, and the daughter invites three men who could be her father to her wedding.

The Birder Players production of “Mama Mia!” in 25 words: Experienced performers throw themselves into the complex web of hit songs and story, with dance sequences filled with flashy difficulty, topped by a whopping encore.

Performances opened over the weekend to three sellout houses in Broadway Theatre. The theater’s website shows the remaining five shows through Feb. 9 are also sold out.

While massive coordination is at play in the production, the show has four stars:

One. Rändi Fay, as Donna Sheridan, the single mother whose past as an entertainer included one-nighters. Fay comes from an entirely different form of performing – a composing singer who savors jazz. Here she proves she can carry a character and sing in the pop-message style.

Two. Ana Lissa Bakken, as Sophie Sheridan, the conflicted daughter. Bakken, who has spent her young life in theater, checks all the boxes – sing, dance, act, be a presence.

Three. Alicia Birder, the show’s producer, director, choreographer and company wellspring. The production feels complete. Birder can get a throng to put on tricky moves and pull off some eye-opening lifts with her leads. In one case, Fay early on is hoisted on a short ladder by two male dancers, requiring her to sing all the way up and back down again like this, of course, is a natural occurrence.

Four. Three form-fitting silver lamé astronaut-type outfits – with three-inch lift silver boots to boot – for the production number “Super Trouper” and the encore razzmatazz. The outfits were custom made locally.

Songs of the hit-making group ABBA often sweep the show along. The story gets a bit deep-thinky in the second act before the ABBA splash resumes, leading into the three-production-number geyser that is the sensational encore that has the company going all out.

Filling the stage is the set, which is the façade of a resort on a Greek island. The set has the feel of a warm vacation spot. Notably, through a window to the audience’s left, the four-piece orchestra can be seen playing.

Splashes of excitement occur in various ways.

+ Sophie is visited by two friends (Maria Hinnendael and Becca Schaberg), who arrive in a wave of girlish giggles. The three get the hits going with “Honey, Honey.”

+ Donna is visited by two friends (Natalie Rein and Ann Preiss Gray) from their years as a singing trio. The three light fire to such infectious songs as “Dancing Queen.” Later, the characters of Rein and Gray will have side stories of their own as they look for love. Notably for Gray, that’s a new take on the popular “Take a Chance on Me” – a show of how musical theater can give added meaning to a song.

+ Sophie and eventually Donna are visited by the three men (Mark Jackson, Chad Lemerande and Jon Weiss), who don’t know each other and don’t know they could be a parental unit. The strong players deal with a lot of churn suddenly thrust on their characters. Lemerande also is the musical director, yeoman’s work in this case because so many people know so many songs so well that they have to sound convincing.

+ Visiting Sophie’s intended, Sky (Cole Styczynski), are Sky’s fun-minded, booze-minded buddies. In a duet with Sophie, Sky is suddenly lifted from her. In a nightmare sequence, Sky ends up in a wedding gown. Sky/Styczynski also has more fun getting caught up in a guy dance romp wearing swim fins.

Very much part of the action is the ensemble, which ignites bolts of energy in songs that made ABBA popular in the first place.

A lot of expertise goes into this production. It’s a habit with Birder Players.

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Creative: Music and lyrics – Benny Andersson, Bjorn Ulvaeus, with some songs with Stig Anderson; book – Catherine Johnson; producer, director, choreographer – Alicia Birder; music director – Chad Lemerande; additional choreography – Anna Allen, Ann Preiss Gray; lighting design – Andrew Schmitz; sound design – Chris Gabyrczak; stage manager – Frank Tower; assistant stage manager – Jenna Peterson; wardrobe coordinators/designers – Sandy Melroy, Judy Patefield; set design – Warren Elliott; props design – Jenna Peterson; hair/make-up design – Lois Gegare; scenic artist – Susan Elliott

Cast:

Donna Sheridan (mother) – Rändi Fay

Sophie Sheridan (daughter) – Ana Lissa Bakken

Ali – Maria Hinnendael

Lisa – Becca Schaberg

Tanya – Natalie Rein

Rosie – Ann Preiss Gray

Harry Bright – Jon Weiss

Bill Austin – Chad Lemerande

Sam Carmichael – Mark Jackson

Sky – Cole Styczynski

Eddie – Sam Van Beek

Pepper – Zeb Metzler

Angela – Leya AbuJamara

Alena – Gina Anderson

Effy – Beth Remmers-Jensen

Kat – Olivia Smith

Teri – Sofia Krans

Gino – Keith Pratt

Phoebe – Alyssa Styczynski

Cora – Maya AbuJamra

Greta – Anna Allen

Demi – Meg Dwyer

Julius – Josh Lewis

Ted – Aidan Averbeck

Cole – Noah Tetzner

Orchestra: piano – Mary Slavek; drums – Parker Drew; bass – Tony Pescaveno; guitar – Dan Weaver

Running time: Two hours, 35 minutes

Remaining performances (website reports all sold out): 7:30 p.m. Feb. 6, 7, 8; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Feb. 9

Info: birderstudio.org

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Musical numbers

Act I

Overture – Orchestra

“I Have a Dream” (Prologue) – Sophie

“Honey, Honey” – Sophie, Ali, Lisa

“Money, Money, Money” – Donna, Company

“Thank You for the Music” – Harry, Bill, Sam, Sophie

“Mamma Mia” – Donna, Harry, Bill, Sam, Company

“Chiquitita” – Donna, Rosie, Tanya

“Dancing Queen” – Donna, Rosie, Tanya

“Lay All Your Love on Me” – Sky, Sophie, Pepper, Eddie, Boys, Girls

“Super Trouper” – Donna, Tanya, Rosie, Girls

“Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)” – Sophie, Lisa, Ali, Harry, Bill, Sam, Girls

“The Name of the Game” – Sophie, Bill

“Voulez-Vous” – Sky, Eddie, Pepper, Company

Act II

Entr’acte – Orchestra

“Under Attack” – Sophie, Nightmare Chorus

“One of Us” – Donna

“S.O.S.” – Donna, Sam

“Does Your Mother Know?” – Tanya, Rosie, Pepper, Harry, Lisa, Ali, Bill

“Knowing Me, Knowing You” – Sam

“Our Last Summer” – Donna, Harry

“Slipping Through My Fingers” – Donna, Sophie

“The Winner Takes It All” – Donna

“Take a Chance on Me” – Rosie, Bill

“Dancing Queen Hymn” – Company

“I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do” – Sam, Rosie, Tanya, Donna, Company

“I Have a Dream” – Sophie

Encore

“Mamma Mia” – Company

“Dancing Queen” – Donna, Tanya, Rosie, Company

“Waterloo” – Donna, Tanya, Rosie, Company

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NEXT: “Little Shop of Horrors” musical, April 5-13.

THE VENUE: Broadway Theatre is a 154-seat, 3,000-square-foot facility at 123 S. Broadway on the east side of the Fox River in De Pere. The building started life as the Majestic Theatre sometime around 1930. The space is essentially a “black box” performance space that is adjusted to the needs of a specific production. The rectangular space includes a high, arcing ceiling consisting primarily of its original patterned tin, painted white, and a laminate dark brown floor. The stage is set on a long leg of the space, with moveable seating for 140 on three sides. The stage has an angled front with three steps to the top surface. The stage is painted blue, with speckles. Performances can spill from the stage onto the main level of the seating area, so action often is up close and personal. The theater is the home for performances and rehearsals of the youth Birder Studio of Performing Arts and adult Birder Players, and it is another option for other endeavors of entertainment.

Contact me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air Critic at Large editions on WFRV-TV at 6:20 a.m. Sundays. My latest book, “I Fell Out of a Tree in Fresno (and other writing adventures),” is available in Green Bay at Neville Public Museum and Bosse’s.

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