Okay.

So, I’ve learned a lesson. I should not judge a musical, or decide whether I’ll ever enjoy a musical again, based on the film adaptation. I should know better than to think Hollywood superstar casts, Colin Firth or Russell Crowe singing, and auto-tuned Emma Watson determines whether a show is inherently good or not.

How did I learn this lesson, you ask? Director Katie Burke, and the entire cast and crew of the Station Theatre’s production of Mamma Mia! showed me how horribly wrong I was; that I needed to rethink how I felt about the show.

However, it’s safe to say I went into the opening night performance skeptical. And, at first, a set that made an already small theatre feel even smaller didn’t help.

But, and this is a big but, that skepticism melted away quite early in the show.

The set was, in fact, simple, smart, and an efficient use of space. It forced floor seating to be incredibly up close and personal with the show, but this actually worked well and made the experience incredibly fun. 

Then, very early on, Burke’s excellent casting decisions became evident as we meet Hannah Yonan (Sophie Sheridan), Dani Brown (Ali), and Ashley Gilberson (Lisa). Both Gilberson and Brown were a joy to watch. They committed to characters who were written to be secondary supporting characters, and gave them much more life than perhaps the script offered. I would love to see both Brown and Giberson as more than just supporting roles and ensemble. 

Yonan suprised me. She played a very sweet, and endearing Sophie. Nothing was wrong with this. It played well. Even the first song or two she performed matched this sweetness. Then as the drama began building, and Sophie got swept up in the stress of it all, Yonan showcased an unexpected and rich singing voice. It was an intriguing juxtaposition to her sweet demeanor that added depth to her performance. My one complaint is that at certain moments, not all that often but in some key emotional moments, she overacted. Doing so didn't distract all that much from her overall performance, as it may just come from being more accustomed to acting for larger audiences, but I would have liked a little more subtlety in certain moments. 

Ranae Wilson (Donna Sheridan) has the total package. She is an absolute superstar with a stellar voice, and quite the, for a lack of a better term, badass vocal range. Her range as an actress rivals her vocal range. Like with any show, the intimacy of the Station allows a performer to add more subtlety to their performance, rather than emote for those way in the back. Wilson's ability to play with this intimacy was remarkable. Wilson showed every twist and turn and bump Donna felt along the emotional rollercoaster of her experience, and it could be felt in the audience; we all laughed with her, struggled with her, and cried with her.  Prior to Mamma Mia!, I was not familiar with Wilson’s body of work, and I regret not seeing her on stage until now. She could sing the phonebook, or even Nickelback, and I'd love it. 

Kevin Wickart (Sam Carmichael), Pete Barrett (Bill Austin), and David Heckman (Harry) were a stellar trio. Wickart committed completely to his songs, the emotions of the turmoil he feels from both love lost and unrequited love coming through with every note. Yet when needed, Wickart successfully let the endearing charm of Sam shine. Barrett played the aloofness of a tunnel-visioned writer quite well, but I would have liked to have seen a little more charisma from him. And Heckman was absolutely charming, sweet, and terrific as Harry. 

Even more dynamic were Jenny Gleason (Rosie) and Suzy Goben (Tanya). The chemistry between these two, and with Wilson, was outstanding. Hilarious, heartwarming, and fantastic singers, any time the two were on stage the scene was exceptionally fun, and were crowd favorites. Could someone here in town create a spin-off show, or just a two person show, for Gleason and Goben to star in? 

Matt Weaver as Sky, while matching Yonan's sweet and endearing demeanor, struggled with overacting at times. However, he complimented Yonan's Sophie extremely well and grew on me as the show went on. 

Outside of the featured cast, Remy Saymiknha (Pepper) and Terron Miller (Eddie) were standouts. There was not a moment they were on stage that I did not find myself laughing, especially Miller's love for a set of bongos or Saymiknha's acrobatic skills or flexing while chasing after the older Tanya. 

Lastly, I will always argue that a great ensemble is key to a great musical. Burke's casting of Mamma Mia's ensemble is just another example I will point to when making this argument. 

The true star of the show, though, was Sheri Doyle’s costume design for Donna and the Dynamos. As colorful and energetic as the show itself, Doyle's 1970s get ups for the trio got some of the biggest cheers the entire show. 

And the band. The band was fantastic. I do wish we were able to see the band. Due to the set design, at least this is my assumption, the band played from the lobby. Although they sounded spectacular, it would have been nice to glance over and watch them play. Much like the cast, the amount of fun the band was having could be felt in the way they played.

In the end, it was a show full of energy, and the audience ate that energy up. Mamma Mia! was simply a wonderful, fun night of theater. At several points throughout the show I found myself observing the audience around me, and quite a few people were mouthing the words or singing along. By the end of the show, I could not stop smiling or get the songs out of my head, and realized it was a terrific example of theatre as pure entertainment and escape.

Often I find myself getting caught up in seeing theatre as serious, and impactful art. This isn’t to say that shows like Mamma Mia! are not art, but far too often I focus on art forcing me to question life or society or the emotions I wrestle with, et cetera. I forget that sometimes art, or in theatre in this case, is just meant to entertain. It is meant to put the biggest smile on our faces. To shake us free from that which burdens, and allow us to feel pure joy even if for just a couple of hours.

See for yourself. Get tickets as soon as you can. They are selling quickly.

And I dare you to try getting through the show without tapping your foot or quietly singing along. Let the cast and band’s energy take you over, and you’ll walk away smiling.

I did, and am now a huge fan of Mamma Mia!

Mamma Mia!
Station Theatre
223 N Broadway
Urbana
December 5-9, 12-15, 7:30 pm
 

Tickets are $15 for adults, and $10 for students and seniors. They can be purchased here.

Photos courtesy of the Station Theatre Facebook page.