Just one look and I can hear a bell ring! One more look and I forget everything— oh, oh! I didn’t forget to get my ticket to the Farewell Tour of Mamma Mia! as it pays a one-weekend only visit to Charm City in Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center as a part of the CareFirst Hippodrome Broadway Series. The Broadway sensational smash-hit musical is making the rounds one final time and it is a must-see performance with astonishing talent, a fantastical ‘feel-good’ story, and a night of wild memories that will be cherished for a lifetime to come. Based on the songs of ABBA, and Directed by Phyllida Lloyd, this charming, heartwarming, musical for all ages will give you a lifetime fondness for realistic fairytales that enchant the ear, excite the heart, and snuggle the soul.
Step out of the cold, wintery streets of Baltimore for just two and a half hours and escape to the warm, exotic climate of the Greek Isles. Production Designer Mark Thompson splashes the costume collection with the seaside color scheme to accentuate the simplicity of the taverna. Sandstone walls with hints of nautical and harbor blues sprinkled here and there work to create wonders of the imagination before the audiences’ eyes. Thompson creates a lively world filled with believably realistic whimsy that possesses just enough magic to amaze onlookers from the house as they journey with familiar characters (even if you’ve never seen the show) through this wonderful story. Capturing the essence of wild party throwbacks in some of the later sartorial selections— particularly the jumpsuits featured on Donna and the Dynamos (and every other costume during the Hen’s Night Party scene)— Thompson blends the worlds of serene tranquility and racy nights into one smooth and sublime visual experience.
Lighting Designer Howard Harrison contributes to the overall aesthetical magic of the production, firmly utilizing mood lighting to augment various musical numbers. Harrison also amps up the party vibe and the dancing verve for various numbers, especially the finale which is essentially one big sing-a-long dance party and the audience is invited. The subtler designs that Harrison crafts, such as the tight focused spotlights— very often featured on Donna— with deep blue washes over the rest of the set, serve as emotional cues for performers and audience alike, strengthening the pathos experienced during numbers like “The Winner Takes it All” and “Lay All Your Love on Me.”
With hit numbers like “Dancing Queen” one expects sensational, top-notch dancing; Choreographer Anthony Van Laast delivers. One of the most memorable dancing features in the show arrives during “Lay All Your Love on Me” when the male ensemble arrives in scuba gear and starts high-kicking and precision marching through the back end of the routine. Van Laast captures spirits in his dance routines, a great many of which are heightened with enthusiasm, driving the audience to tap their toes along throughout the show. Group routines, like “Does Your Mother Know” and “Voulez-Vous” feature energetic ensemble members really stepping hard to the beat and driving the tempo of the song forward with their engaging bodies. Van Laast’s choreography is filled with heart and radiates the emotional life-line of the production in each number.
There is a palpable love, infectious giddiness, and overall remarkable sense of enjoyment which floods through the cast, washes over the stage, and crashes out into the audience right from the first swell of the overture. This sense of excitement, thrill, and mesmerizing wonder is carried by every individual in the cast, unwaveringly throughout the entirety of the performance. Even the giddy girls— Ali (Chloe Kounadis) and Lisa (Niki Badua)— are infected by the contagious glee that runs rampant throughout this cast. Their arrival to the island, and subsequent greeting of Sophie, is a scream of glee and bouncing hugs that shake the audience awake and tune them into the wavelength of glamorous commotion about to ensue. Kounadis and Badua carry this enthusiasm into “Honey, Honey”, lending their spirited voices to this terrific trio.
Equally excitable and rowdily rambunctious, Pepper (Austin Michael) and Eddie (Max Ehrlich) are the island boys that just can’t be beat. Both Michael and Ehrlich have little comedic moments of entertainment, most of which revolve around interacting with Donna and the guests as they arrive at the Taverna, but their featured numbers happen as they lead the march at the end of “Lay All Your Love on Me” and in the second act for “Does Your Mother Know?” Michael gets a chance to showcase his crazy charismatic side in this duet that features Tanya (and the rest of the ensemble) as well as his dancer abilities. The routine is a hoot, and keeps the audience laughing and dancing in their seats.
Though she’s not the girl with the golden hair, Sophie (Lizzie Markson) is the girl with the golden voice. Petulant, exuberant, and a whirlwind of everything that a nervous young bride to be ought to be, Markson delivers a sweet and swift justice to the character of Sophie. Possessed of the same enthusiasm and general excitability as her fellow castmates, Markson burbles and bounces through numbers like “Honey, Honey” with the best of them, but also has a demure and tranquil side, as well as a passionately heated side, fueled by her insatiable curiosity. The latter of the two is most readily witnessed in “The Name of the Game”, while the passion comes blazing forward in “Lay All Your Love on Me.” Her interactions with Sky (Dustin Harris Smith) feel genuine, when they sing together, though the moments in which they do are few, the honesty of their relationship shines through like the super trooper lights of love. Smith, who is blessed with both comedic timing, a dashing physique, and a rich voice, is the perfect fit for the studly Sky, making him the envy of every girl’s eye.
Enter chaos: Tanya (Cashelle Butler), Rosie (Sarah Smith), Bill (Marc Cornes), Harry (Andrew Tebo), and Sam (Shai Yammanee.) Though the girls arrive separately and just before the boys, this quintet of fabulously insane and richly entertaining characters are simply to die for and compose a great deal of the meatier moments in the production. Butler, who is the statuesque yet somewhat flippant Tanya, really gets her 15 minutes of fame during “Does Your Mother Know?” Parading through the number like a sassy, fiery, and glamourous rock star, she’s on fire putting Pepper in his place. Adding a delightful balance to the “Dynamos trio”— comprised of Tanya, Rosie, and Donna— Butler is ripe with saucy mischief and plays the part exceptionally well.
The way the trio— Butler, Smith, and Betsy Padamonsky (as Donna)— interact is truly priceless. As the three women head into the bedroom scene, starting with the dulcet and tender “Chiquitita” and finishing with the wild romp of “Dancing Queen”, there is a nostalgic capture of three best friends riding an emotional roller coaster through this moment of their life. Reflecting the giddy, silly, vibrant energy that Sophie and her two girlfriends shared in the opening scene, these three women are unstoppable in these ten short moments on stage. Wild, wonderful, and truly a delight to watch, this same sentiment carries through into their trio number, “Super Trooper” and is again featured at the end during the finale.
Sarah Smith, taking up the role of Rosie, is a show-stopping scene stealer with all of her shenanigans. Flopping on the bed, falling all over the place, throwing her body into the wall, and a good few dozen other physical expressions of comedy makes Smith’s character work divine. With a voice that blasts through and supports many of the aforementioned trio numbers, it is no wonder that the audience alights with screaming chills when she starts her very own featured solo toward the end of the show, “Take a Chance.” She and the character of Bill (Marc Cornes) steal the show’s thunder then and there in this epic cat-and-mouse routine that is an uproarious scream of hilarity. Smith’s voice belts out the number with a tenacious ferocity that puts her on the vocal treasure map with an explosive ‘X’ to mark the spot. Versatile in her performance and consistent in her portrayal of Rosie, she becomes the life of the party all throughout the show.
Harry Bright is a polished chap who feels just slightly out of place with the rest and it’s a delightfully comedic addition to the show. Andrew Tebo, who takes up the role with great aplomb, has a flavorful vocal affectation that works well for the character. Sharing the laugh-worthy duties of the show alongside his two male cohorts and the two supporting females of the quintet of comedic chaos, Tebo settles into his own as the show roles along. It’s his duet with Donna, “Our Last Summer” that is both vocally gorgeous and yet still humorous in a quaint and nostalgic fashion. There is a great deal of fondly reminisced chemistry between the pair in this number and it is easily dog-eared as one of the great touching and tender moments of the show.
There is lively, albeit caustic, chemistry between Sam (Shai Yammanee) and Donna (Betsy Padamonsky) from the moment their eyes meet. Yammanee carries Sam with a sharp charm, a carefully guarded emotional edge, and a powerful voice that is praiseworthy. Though his moments in song are few, and often exist as duets up against the Donna character, his bold and smooth voice is perfect for the character. “Knowing Me, Knowing You” is an honest beauty when he sings this solo. “S.O.S.” is another astonishing moment where his vocal prowess takes over and duels with Padamonsky’s intense sound to come out the victor of the number. Fully emotionally invested in the ever-shifting dynamic of their relationship, Yammanee brings an exhilarating energy to the pair and drives home the heart of his character with every line and every note sung.
Betsy Padamonsky is Donna Sheridan. There is no easier way to explain it. Gritty and rough around the edges but still clinging to a hopeful feminine side, Padamonsky has balanced her portrayal of Donna with graceful perfection. “Money, Money, Money” shows that uncontrollably desperate urge that undulates in the pit of her core, reflected by the intense vocal sound she delivers as she carries the number through to its end, while “Super Trooper” and “Dancing Queen” showcase her more playful and wild side. The emotional heart and resolute attachment to her feelings comes pouring out of her soul directly for numbers like “Slipping Through My Fingers” and “S.O.S.” Each song brings forth a new illuminating flavor of her feelings; Padamonsky delves deep into the dynamic emotional heart of Donna and unearths rich and rewarding moments for everyone to experience. The show-stopping 11 o’clock number, “The Winner Takes it All” is phenomenal; the belted sustain that she delivers at the song’s end is achieved with such a powerful emotional connection that it brings the audience to thunderous applause.
You’d better change your mind— be the first in line— while there are tickets still free— take a chance on Mamma Mia! Say thank you for the music, it’s delightful, and enjoy every moment of this stellar production.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 40 minutes with one intermission
Mamma Mia plays a limited five performances starting Friday January 13, 2017 through January 15, 2017 at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center— 12 N. Eutaw Street in the Bromo Seltzer Arts District of Baltimore, MD. For tickets call the box office at (410) 752-7444 or purchase them purchase tickets online
To read the interview with Sarah Smith, playing Rosie, click here.