They can dance! They can jive! They’re having the time of their life! And you will too when you come to see Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Columbia present the professional regional premiere of the world famous production Mamma Mia! Available for the first time since the infamous Abba-based production ended its seemingly endless tour, Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Columbia has all your favorite Abba songs, all of the flashy costumes and marvelous dancing, with an intimately accessible look at a truly heart-warming family story. Directed and Choreographed by Mark Minnick with Musical Direction by Ross Scott Rawlings, this show is the sensation of the summer and will not disappoint!
Pack your bags and board the boat, you’re going to a remote island in Greece! Scenic & Lighting Designer David A. Hopkins molds the infamous stage-in-the-round into the iconic Taverna, complete with a subtle nod to the shows origins with his denim-wash blue window shutters and trim overhanging the balcony, creating a rustic and charming look for the little resort that time swept away. A few carefully placed dockside poles at the theatre’s entrances and you have magical framework that’s ready to engage the imagination. Hopkins shies away from clunky scenic pieces, which might otherwise disrupt the show’s natural momentum and flow, favoring instead sleek furnishings that roll and glide to ease scenic transitions from a room inside the Taverna to the rich outdoors. Hopkins’ crowning glory is the delicate olive tree branch that lowers unobtrusively into the scenes that take place outside, giving us a further hint at our Grecian location.
Doubling up as the show’s illuminator, Hopkins’ lighting design is well worthy of its own score of praises. Understanding the delicate balance of lighting the in-the-round space is its own challenge, one that Hopkins rises to and meets with great success. In addition to this, all of Hopkins’ specialty cues and features— like the garish green washes that dominate the Entr’acte and blends into the second act’s opening number, “Under Attack.” Hopkins delivers in full disco force for “Super Trouper” flashing those lights all through the house and adds plenty of pizzazz to the fantastical finale in a similar fashion. Further expressing his masterful knowledge of illumination, Hopkins finds warm tones to augment the natural feelings of certain moments— the gentle amber glow to highlight Sophie as she mails away her letters, the brilliant glow on Donna and Sophie to encourage waxing nostalgic during “Slipping Through My Fingers”— the show is populated with Hopkins’ graceful emotional enhancers by way of superior lighting design.
Finding all the flare there is to find, Costume Coordinator Tommy Malek put the show’s razzle-dazzle aesthetic into the hands of AT Jones & Sons, the 150-year-old establishment, which proudly bears the title of America’s oldest, continually running costume shop. And with over a century of seasoned skills, AT Jones & Sons give the Toby’s production an extraordinary polished look. When they return to the stage for one night only, Donna & The Dynamos glisten with a glimmering gleam that’s as bright and blinding as the super-trouper lights in the song they’re singing. And the jumpsuits that dominate the finale are well worth the price of admission alone. Malek, taking time and care to ensure an exacting fit to each individual cast member has helped to hone the firmly-established aesthetic expected of a Broadway-quality production; together his work and the superb costumes provided by AT Jones & Sons are truly a decadent topping on a glorious production.
Tackling the musical challenges with rigorous vigor and exemplary knowledge, Musical Director Ross Scott Rawlings masterfully blends harmonies of these well-loved Abba tunes to the forefront of the production. Using Director Mark Minnick’s ingenious blocking, which features the ensemble members hovering at the periphery of scenes whenever they’re singing said harmonies, Rawlings is able to draw forth a richer, smoother blend of sounds in all of the group numbers. In addition to honing in on these complex harmonies, Rawlings performs musical magic from the tips of his fingers, dancing and romancing the keyboard keys from inside the pit to create an enchanting, upbeat, and entertaining sound. This fine key work is best exemplified in “Waterloo.” Fully blended and smoothly balanced (with Sound Designer Mark Smedley equalizing the ratio of pit musicians to singers sublimely) Rawlings delivers top-notch musicality in Mamma Mia!
Inspiring honest joy and exuberant excitement upon the stage, Director Mark Minnick cracks open the core of this heart-warming story buried inside everybody’s favorite Abba tunes and presents it directly to the audience, inviting them to absorb and enjoy the tale as it unfolds. Approaching the story in earnest, Minnick hones in on dozens of little moments— some joyous, some nostalgic, some bittersweet— and focuses the momentum and overall energy of the production around these moments. His blocking is tight, his character development work with the actors is strong, and his casting choices create a magical fairytale like no other, all while unfolding in the earnest emotions of the Mamma Mia! narrative. Understanding the story, and the value of putting the story before the spectacle of the dance or the vibrancy of the music, Minnick lets the audience into this truly beautiful picture of what families can be.
See those girls (and boys)! Watch those scenes— Minnick creates dancing queens out of all of his company. Just three numbers into the show, the audience is treated to the first little drizzle of the Minnick Choreographic Experience. “Money, Money, Money” has the ensemble moving as one to the rhythm of the beat to further express the song’s underlying emotion via body language carried in the vessel of dancing. Pumping up the energy, Minnick lets the ensemble of young bachelor boys (Brandon Bedore, Justin Calhoun, Joey Ellinghaus, Ariel Messeca, Shiloh Orr, Andrew Prowant) boisterously bounce their way through the back half of “Lay All Your Love On Me.” This is a particularly impressive choreographic routine because their high-stepping shenanigans is performed while in UV-dayglow swimming fins and snorkels. Minnick furthers his choreographic expedition during the Entr’acte and “Under Attack” at the top of the second act by creating nightmarish moves that border on robotic to fully incite the panic attack that Sophie experiences in this bizarre dream sequence. But the true dancing mastery occurs during the show’s extended curtain-call finale, which features “Dancing Queen” and “Waterloo.” The moves are extraordinary and have the audience all but flying out of their seats to dance along.
Dance Captain Rachel Kemp is a beacon of radiance when it comes to executing Minnick’s advanced choreographic routine. Serving as an example for the aforementioned boys and the remainder of the ensemble (including David James, Jamie Pasquinelli, Cassie Saunders, Nia Savoy, Louisa Tringali, Brigid Wallace) during the major dance routines, Kemp leads the ensemble with great finesse and honest enthusiasm, smiling without artifice and letting her body move with the joy of the music. More severe moments, like during “Money, Money, Money”, Kemp absorbs the atmospheric tone of the tune and adjusts her body accordingly, radiating a stellar example for the ensemble, which everyone on stage follows. This creates a unified look and feel for all of the dance routines that Mark Minnick has carefully honed to fit the space.
Popping out of the ensemble are the precocious Pepper (Joey Ellinghaus) and Eddie (Shiloh Orr.) Whilst the Donna character may refer to these adorable knuckleheads as the general help that is generally no help at all, both Ellinghaus and Orr are sensational additions to the cast. Orr showcases his acrobatic abilities at the end of “Lay All Your Love On Me”, doing a nearly a full minute’s worth of handstand-walking in his scuba fins and snorkel! Ellinghaus plays up the stud-on-a-mission role when he engages with the Tanya character during “Does Your Mother Know.” The number itself is pretty hilarious, but made especially so by Ellinghaus’ vivid facial expressions and all of his animated antics that shake up during the song.
With just one vocal solo to prove his worth, that devilishly handsome Sky (Paul Roeckell) is ready to take on the world of marriage and then some when it comes to life on the island with Sophie. Roeckell fits the bill with his dashing looks and suave yet sincere charm, especially when it comes to an unsettlingly and emotionally charged moment in the middle of the second act shared with Sophie. Roeckell has a fine, smooth voice, which he readily showcases during the duet, “Lay All Your Love on Me”, a song he shares with Sophie in the middle of the first act. Expressing real emotions when it comes to the chemistry he shares with Sophie, Roeckell’s Sky is essentially the fiancé of every young 20-something’s dreams.
Sophie (Maggie Dransfield) is the heartstring at the core of the story and Dransfield explores the character with thorough intrigue and satisfying enthusiasm. Vocally smart and technically clever, Dransfield creates a unique character in Sophie, giving her depth and sincerity when it comes to the pursuit of her father and her own identity. Bubbling with jittering glee during “Honey, Honey”, Dransfield leads her dippy bridesmaids (Jamie Pasquinelli and Cassie Saunders) through the number with copious and infectious glee. This is tempered in dynamic balance against the perpetually tumultuous turmoil that Dransfield exudes during numbers like “The Name of the Game”, where she sings from the heart with honest desperation. Versatile, expressive, and fully invested in Sophie’s character arc, Maggie Dransfield brings a thrilling new way of experiencing Sophie as an emotionally charged and deeply rooted human being to the forefront of this Mamma Mia! production.
But where would a young, identity-challenge sweet girl of 21 be without her outrageous aunties? Tanya (Coby Kay Callahan) and Rosie (Tess Rohan) sweep onto the island just in time for the wedding and it’s all sorts of fun from there. The pair are really there as the pillars of support for emotionally-wrecked Donna, and spend most of their numbers attempting to set their dear friend to rights. Callahan takes point on both “Chiquitita” and “Dancing Queen”, leading these songs with her powerful voice, in varying veins of emotional enthusiasm. Calming and endearing the lyrics of “Chiquitita”, Callahan showcases her versatility in singing by switching a moment later into the bubbly, upbeat, and bouncy number “Dancing Queen”, where she and Rohan get down with some silly shenanigans in an attempt to pull Donna out of a slump. The real saucy fun that radiates the sassiness that Callahan laces into the Tanya character arrives in Act II, when she lays it all out during “Does Your Mother Know”, a fiery and seductive song that almost sends Pepper popping right out of his pants! Serving as stellar supporting sound alongside Donna during “Super Trouper”, Callahan and Rohan are dynamite when it comes to being Dynamos.
Enter the Fathers: Sam Carmichael (Jeffrey Shankle), Bill Austin (Russell Sunday), and Harry Bright (Darren McDonnell), good luck! Though this fine trio of seasoned veterans hardly need luck to win over the hearts of the audiences. When the trio arrives, much to the exasperating consternation of Donna Sheridan, it’s a brand new can of worms that shakes up the dynamic of what was meant to be an ordinary wedding. Sunday, whose rough-n-tumble Bill Austin is the primary comic-relief character, doesn’t say much but when he gets down to it, there’s some pretty amazing things happening. Sunday displays a sharp contrast between his character’s silly side and his sincere one. “The Name of the Game” explores a series of deeply moving moments that are carried in Sophie’s voice and Sunday’s face. But listen for that rich, buttery sound when Sunday delves into “Take a Chance On Me”, a duet shared with Rosie. He leads all the comic shenanigans in this number, pushing and pulling the song around with his physical comedy, first subtle, then explosive.
Juggling flamboyance with sincerity, Darren McDonnell delivers a delightful Harry Bright. There is a rich and fulfilling congeniality to his performance that warms the heart and delights the soul. Despite his outrageous dance moves (you won’t be able to take your eyes off of him during “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!”) there is a resonant depth to McDonnell’s Harry, which is best experienced during his two solo features, “Thank You For the Music” (which is really a duet with Sophie, turning group number by its conclusion) and “Our Last Summer”, a duet shared with Donna. McDonnell’s resplendent voice is truly music to the ear when dancing vocally through these numbers. The nostalgic sincerity that McDonnell unearths in “Our Last Summer” is both endearing and sublime. His wedding-speech interruption is chock full of heart and conviviality as well, which really hits home for a great multitude of individuals when he expresses these sentiments.
With exacting articulation so that every word can be clearly understood, Jeffrey Shankle’s Sam Carmichael has Donna Sheridan bristling all over the place. Clearly and consistently hitting the high tenor range that the Sam character demands, Shankle is vocally on point in the production, sailing through numbers like “Knowing Me, Knowing You” with vocal precision. His pristine sound is well matched against Donna, particularly when they’re shouting the house down with their fiery duet, “S.O.S.” Watch Shankle carefully during the titular number, because although he’s stuck in freeze frame, his frozen body language and facial expression adds inconceivable hilarity to the happenings that have been bent around this number.
The winner takes it all, and Heather Marie Beck is taking it all, truly winning this game of Mamma Mia in the star role of Donna Sheridan. In the most extraordinary role of her career to date, Beck is a tour du force triple threat: acting, singing, and dancing to create the perfect Donna. With indefatigable energy that defies the laws of physics, Beck is so physically invested in the character that you can scarcely keep up with her movements. Throwing herself all around the stage in the earlier numbers, like “Money, Money, Money” and “Dancing Queen”, the amount of infinite energy that she’s pouring into Donna is beyond enviable. Beneath this effervescent exterior, however, lies an unfathomable well of emotional rigor that creates a dynamic and fascinating Donna with multiple layers of depth to explore. Watching Beck blow her mind in exasperated panic at the top of “Mamma Mia” is one of the most hilarious and simultaneously endearing moments of the show. Beck masterfully balances the humor of the Donna character against the plight of Donna’s character arc. There’s no muddling around in the emotional mire with Beck’s performance; every emotion is expressed clearly, often many at once but still with radiant individual clarity.
Vocally carrying a show that titans of the stage would find challenging, Beck settles in for the long haul early on and just keeps going. Whether she mouthing off with the hired help, or trying to calm the nerves of her daughter, Beck is the emotionally charged energizer bunny of the theatre; she just keeps going, and going, and going! This doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of her sensational dancing (featured in too many numbers to list) or her phenomenal vocal prowess. “Slipping Through My Fingers” is so fully loaded with pure, unadulterated bittersweet nostalgia that it tugs the heartstrings into that ‘ugly cry’ place and Beck has the audience sniffling before the song even truly gets underway. But the show-stopping eleven o’clock number, “The Winner Takes it All” is truly Beck at her finest, belting out from the very bottom of her soul with every ounce of anguished lovesick feeling she possesses. Heather Marie Beck is Donna Sheridan incarnate; she’s honest, engaging, astounding, and truly remarkable in this role.
It’s no surprise that tickets are nearly sold out, and you don’t want to be crying out “S.O.S.” if you miss your opportunity to see this stellar regional premiere. Mamma Mia! is the sizzling summer show to see, take a chance on Toby’s Dinner Theatre, and without a doubt you’ll experience the joy like you’ve never felt it before.
Running Time: 2 hours and 35 minutes with one intermission