My, my, the Muse Machine has officially come a long way in the course of 35 years of producing its annual student musicals. Once upon a time, Broadway’s Golden Age was consistently embraced by the arts education organization, presenting a string of classics such as Damn Yankees, Guys and Dolls, Mame, The Music Man, My Fair Lady, Oliver!, On the Town, The Pajama Game, Peter Pan, and South Pacific. Recently, the tide shifted toward contemporary fare such as Mary Poppins, Seussical and an extraordinary Hairspray. This time around at the Victoria Theatre, the Muse sticks to current trends with Mamma Mia!, the 1999 Olivier and Tony Award-nominated ABBA tunefest written by Catherine Johnson that has captivated audiences around the world from the stage to the multiplex. Yet in doing so, they’ve somehow made a strikingly adult-oriented show concerning significant issues of promiscuity as easy to swallow as Mary’s spoonful of sugar.
After all, to discuss Mamma Mia! and not mention its glorification of sex would be comparable to ignoring Jud Fry’s bedroom beauties in Oklahoma! or the rise of the Nazis in The Sound of Music. In other words, it comes with the territory, specifically as single mother Donna Sheridan (believably perturbed and conflicted Melanie Dodson) and her only daughter Sophie (outstanding Charlotte Kunesh) attempt to navigate complicated issues of romance past and present. Over the years, the Muse has become very savvy at tailoring shows with Oz-like fervor (pay no attention to the giddy teenage girls exclaiming “gimme, gimme, gimme a man after midnight”) to the point that the sheer joy and charm exploding throughout certain scenes, certain songs, carries a lot of weight. And it’s a very delicate balancing act by the way, especially when dealing with, to borrow a phrase, curious children beginning to grow. Lay All Your Love On Me? No worries. It’s just an innocent moment of playful banter between Sophie and her devoted fiancé Sky (handsome Regin Potter). Does Your Mother Know? No worries. Forget the extremely flirtatious, hot and heavy subtext and just be in awe of Courtney Collinsworth’s fiery strength as middle age divorcée Tanya who isn’t shy about her feminine instincts. The Muse hasn’t gone so far as to gloss over all of Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus’ lyrical intentions, but it’s important to know this version is understandably unable to be contextually truthful.
Nonetheless, director Rufus Bonds, Jr,, returning at the helm for the first time since Muse’s 2012 production of The Wizard of Oz, has a firm handle on the material, establishing wonderful pacing and strong character development. I was particularly moved near the outset by Thank You for the Music, sweetly sung with luminous yearning by Kunesh as Sophie acknowledges Donna’s musical and parental influence while simultaneously being grateful to finally meet and potentially have a meaningful relationship with her three possible dads Sam Carmichal (tenderly authoritative Desmond Kingston, offering an excellently sensitive rendition of Knowing Me, Knowing You), Harry Bright (chipper Michael Taylor) and Bill Austin (comical Steven Greenwalt). Equally impressive is Bonds’ endearing rock concert treatment of Super Trouper, heightened by John Rensel’s fantastic lighting, showcasing Donna, Tanya and Rosie (terrific Sara LiBrandi) nostalgically reuniting as Donna and The Dynamos surrounded by an adoringly enthusiastic crowd. His work is also cohesively in step with choreographer Lula Elzy, celebrating her 20th anniversary with Muse. Elzy’s jubilant, carefree routines, dabbling in both 1970s and 1990s sensibilities, regularly escalates as the 100-member cast excitedly builds the spirited urgency of Money, Money, Money, Gimme, Gimme, Gimme, Voulez-Vous, the title number, and the infectiously feel-good curtain call/encore.
Additionally, appealing featured performances are given by Trinity Wolff (Ali), Julie Murphy (Cassie), Marisha Osowski (Lisa), Macy Patton (Nina), Bryce Galvan (Pepper), exuberant Nick Bradley (Eddie), and delightfully understated Fischer Barnett (Father Alexandrios). Musical director Jeffrey Powell’s orchestra includes standout drummer Raymon King-Redding II. Costumers Toni Donato Shade and Alisa Vukasinovich supply colorful and attractive period and contemporary outfits (Kunesh’s final look is a subtle knockout). Muse alum Ryan Vallo’s top-notch sound design is a feat considering the production’s scope. Muse alum Adam Koch’s grand Mediterranean set design awash in coastal blue is courtesy of Maine’s Ogunquit Playhouse.
It’s too soon to say whether or not Muse will continue its examination of adult-themed stories (is Cabaret, Hair or Rent in the pipeline?), but for now, I absolutely encourage you to have the time of your life at Mamma Mia!
Mamma Mia! continues through Jan. 13 at the Victoria Theatre, 138 N. Main St., Dayton. Performances are 8 p.m. Friday; 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday; and 2 p.m. Sunday. Act One: 60 minutes; Act Two: 50 minutes. Tickets are $27-$65 and can be purchased by calling Ticket Center Stage at (937) 228-3630 or visiting ticketcenterstage.com.