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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘Mama Mia!’ enthusiastically played and received in Marinette

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Theatre on the Bay

The Dynamos trio reunites on a Greek isle to sing “Super Trouper” in a scene from the Theatre on the Bay production of “Mama Mia!” (James LaMalfa)

MARINETTE, Wis. (WFRV)

The musical “Mama Mia!” tends perk up people’s attention.

It’s probably the blend of ABBA’s catchy songs in a story set in an exotic, romantic place and the expectation of something festive. That the story is a tad earthy – dot, dot, dot – helps, too.

And so it is that Theatre on the Bay is starting its 53rd season with a production of “Mama Mia!” that already has a history. Opening night Friday experienced a power outage from a storm, and (I overheard this) the cast finished off the final numbers with the help of the audience’s cell phone flashlights. No such hitch happened Saturday, and the performance breathed freely of fun, especially in the pumped-up finale.

Speaking of breathing freely, that is very much what happens in the performance of Jacqueline Nutter in the central role of Sophie Sheridan. In voice, look and characterization, Jacqueline Nutter fits the role like a glove. Sophie is a 20-year-old in search of someone to cap off her wedding day – her biological father. Along with goofiness that seems to happen around weddings, deep matters of heart bring touching meaning to the role that Jacqueline Nutter responds to and portrays/sings beautifully.

Jennifer Rickaby offers a convincing quality in voice and character to her role of Sophie’s mother, Donna, whose history is the reason “Mama Mia!” exists. Back in the day when Donna was part of free-livin’, free-lovin’ vocal trio, The Dynamos, Donna experienced a summer with three guys – dot, dot, dot.

What happens in “Mama Mia!” – rooted in known ABBA hits – turns around Sophie, Donna and the visiting two other Dynamos and the three guys as Sophie approaches her wedding to her love, Sky. It’s a bit complex, but there’s always a hit song to buoy things along, with an ensemble of “guests” eagerly coloring the aura in song and dance.

Although the house sound system has a bit of hollowness, the verve of songs comes through.

As Donna’s compatriot Dynamos, Brittany Welch (Tanya) and Kari Moody (Rosie) add splash and zest in group and individual songs. Lamé outfits come into play big time in “Super Trouper” and in a surprise in the encore that includes “Waterloo.”

Noah Steffen brings a nice-guy aura to his role of Sky, with liveliness in dance.

The potential fathers are consistently portrayed by James Porras II (Harry), Glenn Sellen (Bill Austin) and David Rickaby (Sam Carmichael).

There’s a backstory in this cast: Donna and Sam in real life are Jennifer Rickaby and her husband, David Rickaby. Imagine the couple’s household preparing for this production, especially because Donna and Sam have the deepest connection from 21 years past.

The supporting ensemble is dominated by young players, which means there’s a lot of energy around. Saturday night’s audience fed on that energy. Many of the songs were met by hearty cheers, which elevated the overall excitement in the theater. There was a feeling of participation in the story and performance sought by the creative collaborators producer Rebecca Stone Thornberry, director John Thornberry, music directors Brittany Welch and James Porras II and choreographer Heather Olsen.

“Mama Mia!” is unusual in that while it takes place at a resort with scenes primarily outside, some scenes have disco-y light shows and the chorus appears/disappears at will. Not that musical theater ever was real in the first place, but “Mama Mia!” stretches the stretchiness. Not that anybody cares, what with all the hit tunes coming one after another to crank up the action.

Added to this production are scenic elements that express the Greek-ness of the island. In the background are rooftops of a town with the dome of a Greek Orthodox church dominant. To the right of the front of the resort inn is a saying written in Greek inside a representation of sun beams. Even without a translation, the impression is the saying means something like “Have a good time” – which is what the audience had Saturday night.

***

Creative: Music and lyrics – Benny Andersson, Bjorn Ulvaeus, with some songs with Stig Anderson; book – Catherine Johnson; producer and Theatre on the Bay artistic director – Rebecca Stone Thornberry director – John Thornberry; music directors – Brittany Welch, James Porras II; choreography – Heather Olsen; dance captain – Karah Nelson; scenic design – Joshua LaLonde; scenic design associate – John Thornberry; lighting design – Chris Weber; costume design – Annalisa Mines; stage management­ – Jared Thomson

Cast (in order of appearance):

Sophie Sheridan – Jacqueline Nutter

Ali­ – McKenna Carvenough

Lisa – Michaela Kaiser

Donna Sheridan – Jennifer Rickaby

Tanya – Brittany Welch

Rosie – Kari Moody

Sky – Noah Steffen

Pepper – Bailey Boutin

Eddie – Ben Everson

Harry Bright – James Porras II

Bill Austin­ – Glenn Sellen

Sam Carmichael – Dave Rickaby

Father Alexandrios – Tristan Schuh

Ensemble – Lisa Atkinson-LeBoeuf, Alyssa Carviou, Tyrus Cretens, Hannah Fields, Emily Rose Halfmann, Tammela Kirk, Kendra Krouth, Lydia LeBoeuf, Michele Lemire, Cassidy MacArthur, Travis Meyer, Annalisa Mines, Karah Nelson, Colin Nygren, Lori Patzke, Kenan Pulver, Olivia Smith

Running time: 2½ hours

Remaining performances: 2 p.m. July 21, 7:30 p.m. July 26-27, 2 p.m. July 28

Info: tinyurl.com/mammamiatob

***

Musical numbers (recorded soundtrack)

Act I

Overture – Orchestra

“I Have a Dream” (Prologue) – Sophie

“Honey, Honey” – Sophie, Ali, Lisa

“Money, Money, Money” – Donna, Ensemble

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

“Mamma Mia!” – Donna, Ensemble

“Chiquitita” –Rosie, Tanya, Donna, Ensemble

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

“Lay All Your Love on Me” – Sky, Sophie, Ensemble

“Super Trouper” – Donna, and the Dynamos, Ensemble

“Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight”) – Company

“The Name of the Game” – Sophie, Bill

“Voulez-Vous” – Company

Act II

Entr’acte – Orchestra

“Under Attack” – Sophie, Company

“One of Us”/“S.O.S.” – Donna, Sam, Ensemble

“Does Your Mother Know?” – Tanya, Pepper, Ensemble

“Knowing Me, Knowing You” – Sam, Sophie, Ensemble

“Our Last Summer” – Harry, Donna, Ensemble

“Slipping Through My Fingers” – Donna, Sophie, Ensemble

“The Winner Takes It All” – Donna, Ensemble

“Take a Chance on Me” – Rosie, Bill

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

“I Have a Dream” – Sophie, Ensemble

Bows and Encore – Company

***

NEXT: “Frozen Jr.” (Children’s Theatre) musical, Oct. 11-13, 18-20; “Reckless” (adult) by Craig Lucas, Nov. 15-17, 22-24.

THE VENUE: The 362-seat Herbert L. Williams Theatre is located in the Fine Arts Building of the University of Wisconsin-Marinette, 750 W. Bay Shore St. The bay of Green Bay is in shouting distance to the east. The facility was built in 1968. Central in the theater is a thrust stage, a half octagon that the audience surrounds. The theater includes brick walls on both sides of the stage and a white ceiling of half circles radiating from the stage, with the area above the stage exposed for the guts of the lighting grid. Three steps lead to the stage, which today bears the name The Nancy A. Gehrke Stage. The design of the stage was one of the first of its kind in the region. The theater feels spacious.

THE PEOPLE: Herbert L. Williams was professor of communication arts and artistic director of Theatre on the Bay with a lively and engaging personality. He loved to act and appeared many times in leading roles at Theatre on the Bay. Mostly, Herb Williams loved to direct. He retired after 30 years in May 1996 and continued to direct and perform in Green Bay and the Fox Cities. He may have directed more plays than anyone in the region. Herb Williams died in 2014 in Green Bay at age 79. A memorial service was held in the theater that bears his name. Nancy A. Gehrke acted for 40 years on the stage named for her. Today, painting is a primary passion.

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