Berkeley Playhouse’s ‘Mamma Mia!’ adaptation is a crowd-pleaser despite bumpy creative direction

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If there is such a thing as a “safe bet” in the world of musical theater, “Mamma Mia!” perfectly fits the job description. Written by playwright Catherine Johnson and featuring Swedish pop group ABBA’s greatest hits, “Mamma Mia!” is a consummate crowd-pleaser; this is likely a large part of why the Berkeley Playhouse’s rendition of the musical comes only a year after another Bay Area theater company, Center REPertory, produced its own version.

“Mamma Mia!” brings in audiences with its retro musical numbers and gleefully soapy plot — two charming factors that Berkeley Playhouse’s adaptation mostly manages to capture. With the exception of a few stylistic and casting missteps, Berkeley Playhouse’s “Mamma Mia!” utilizes the musical’s inherent joy and almost earns its two mandated encores.

“Mamma Mia!” follows young Sophie Sheridan (Chanel Tilghman) as she prepares for her wedding, which will soon take place on the fictional Greek island of Kalokairi. Sophie was raised by her single mother, Donna (Katrina McGraw), and has no idea who her biological father is. But thanks to her snooping through her mother’s diary, she’s discovered three possible contenders — Sam Carmichael (Brendan Simon), Bill Austin (Matt Davis) and Harry Bright (Ryan Weible) — and invited them to her wedding. All of the pandemonium one might expect from this scenario soon ensues in a deliciously melodramatic, ABBA-accompanied fashion.

The musical’s hokey plot plays out between a hefty roster of ABBA numbers, with those featuring Tilghman and McGraw as the highlights. The mother-daughter duo clearly possesses the cast’s most formidable vocal skill, as Tilghman’s solos in “The Name of the Game” and “Lay All Your Love on Me” particularly showcase her bright, melodic voice, and McGraw’s rich rendition of “The Winner Takes it All” is sure to garner some of the performance’s largest applause. 

Melinda Meeng-Postma and Jill Gould are similarly charismatic as Donna’s friends Tanya and Rosie, respectively. The women’s amusing interplay offers some of the production’s biggest laughs, and Meeng-Postma’s charm distinguishes her biggest number “Does Your Mother Know” as the musical’s liveliest.

Other numbers are less successful: “S.O.S.” and “Knowing Me, Knowing You” suffer due to Simon’s limited vocal skill and hammy delivery of dialogue. Similarly, the production’s dance ensemble — a modern “Greek chorus” of dancers clad in white clothes and blue sequins — is overutilized. Almost every number, including more emotional, character-based songs, is accompanied by at least a dancer or two — an awkward blocking choice that often draws attention away from the central story playing out in the song.

The decision to costume the dancers in clear uniforms while the lead characters wear normal clothes is similarly confusing, as it results in dancers oddly sticking out in the background of many scenes because of their bright, sparkly outfits and clashing with other characters, disrupting the imagined reality of the show. 

This unintentional detachment is a shame, particularly because the set design for the production is so well-constructed — a rig that moves between multiple locations offers a beautifully realistic backdrop for Kalokairi. 

Ultimately, “Mamma Mia!” at the Berkeley Playhouse succeeds despite some uneven creative choices. The overall talent of its cast coupled with the production’s embrace of the musical’s inherent camp is more than enough to entreat its audience to get up and dance in the aisles. It’s monumentally hard to take all the fun out of ABBA — lucky for audiences, Berkeley Playhouse doesn’t try.

Grace Orriss is the assistant arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected].