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'Mama Mia!' is irresistible

web 6 28 Mamma Mia The Dynamos reunite Anna Asunta and Dianne 200 1
Photo by Tom Moore
Shown are Anna Kotula (left), Asunta Fleming and Dianne Miller.

 

By Sami Zahringer, Special to the Ojai Valley News
“Mamma Mia!” now playing at Ojai Art Center Theater, is ridiculous. I mean, truly ridiculous. It presents a sit-com-esque plot with a woman, a daughter, and three possible dads; and within that plot, it shamelessly manipulates you with some of the kitschiest, cheesiest, endearingly Swedish and most iconic pop music that anybody ever sang along to into their hairbrush. You will laugh and sing and love every minute of it, and the unconvinced cynics you take to the theater to see it with you will laugh and sing and love every minute of it, too, despite themselves.
It takes a lot of art to make a success out of something as kitschy as “Mamma Mia!”
Firstly, the songs of ABBA (the Swedish superstars around whose songs the musical is based), cheesy as they are, are regarded musically as some of the most well-constructed, euphoria-inducing ear-worms of the last 50 years. Pure pop. It’s much too easy to mistake the vociferous rejection of pop culture for artistic discernment. Excellence often comes under the disguise of ubiquity. Sunsets happen every day, but we only notice their exquisiteness when we stop to look. 
Roses, too — those most storied of flowers — are in almost every supermarket year around, but, unless we have ingested a substance that makes us want to wax lyrical about them for hours, we don’t necessarily appreciate them every time we dash in for a box of cornflakes.
“Mamma Mia!” takes ABBA’s well-known, ubiquitous, powerfully addictive melodies and, put together with charming characters and the light-infused, summery atmosphere of the Greek islands, makes them trippy and exhilarating. We assuredly *do* feel the ebullience when we leave the show. That is art. It has made us feel something, even the most cynical among us, and there is room enough in this world for high-brow and low-brow art alike, provided both are excellent.
Secondly, the simple plot, the larger-than-life characters and the eye-pleasing choreography must be conjured into a cohesive whole and, in this production, Director Tracey Williams Sutton, with the support of co-producer Herb Hemming, pulls it off seamlessly, with the considerable talents of choreographer Anna Kotula, musical director Andy Street and vocal director Smitty West. 
The plot is simple. Donna’s daughter Sophie is getting married. Unbeknownst to her mother, she reads her diary and invites the three men who might be her father to the wedding. Deliciously staged confusion ensues.
Thirdly, the casting can make or break a show like this. The actors must be at the top of their game, not least of all vocally. There’s no room for duff notes when singing such well-known numbers and, in this production, very little chance of them. The knock ’em dead voice of Asunta Fleming as she soulfully plays free-spirited but discombobulated Donna is an audience-gasping star-turn. Nichole Riffenburgh, playing her daughter Sophie, has an angelic voice and face, but avoids the trap of coming off as too naive and saccharine. We feel the sass she has inherited from Donna. Bodhi Bourbon (sharing the stage with his dad, Shane) is Sophie’s besotted fiancé and the two share sweet, believable chemistry.
The three potential fathers are each a glorious treat and it’s difficult to imagine stronger casting or voices for the roles. Shane Bourbon plays it straight and sincere, with a soaring, searing voice, as Sam, the architect who broke Donna’s heart all these years before. 
Nigel Chisholm is the archetypal stammering, self-effacing English banker, Harry, erstwhile hippy and “headbanger” and still with hidden “spontaneous” depths. His warm, classical baritone works as velvety well in duet as solo. 
Smitty West is Bill, the travel writer and globe trotter who prefers to trot alone. The funniest moment of the whole show is his hilariously reluctant middle-aged seduction — “Take A Chance On Me” — by Donna’s friend Rosie, played with uproarious high spirits by Dianne Miller. 
Meanwhile, Kotula as grand-high-seductress, Tanya, Donna’s other friend, prowls the stage with an arched eyebrow that has seen everything and still wants more. Donna and her two dynamos have some of the most crowd-pleasing numbers of the show and, in all manner of shiny lamé (bravo to costumers Michal Gaidano, Haley Culliton and Tracey Williams Sutton), the trio shine and bring the audience to its feet, the years having faded precisely nothing from their joie-de-vivre.
Sophie’s two friends, Ali (Kisea Katikka) and Lisa (Shannon David), set the high energy tone at the beginning of the play and gleefully head up a smashing all-singing, all-dancing chorus line, along with Sky’s impish friends, the bartenders Pepper (Joe Hidley) and Eddie (Hayden Miller).
For sheer joy and straight up feel-good theater, “Mamma Mia” is non-nutritive, frivolous in every way, and very good for your joy levels. As Ojai Art Center Theater Arts Director Richard Camp says in his short introduction: “‘Mamma Mia!’ has no deep underlying social message. There is no reason for this show to exist other than to make you happy.”
Let out your inner-sequined body suit, step out of the troubles of the world and into the transformative, colorful space of the theater for two hours of breathless exuberance. Emerge revitalized, rosy-cheeked and happier than before and continue your life, which is now better for having experienced such a sheer celebration of life and song. Ojai Art Center Theater’s “Mamma Mia!” is a welcome sugar-rush in bitterly divided times, a heart-shaped candy with the word “sing!” on it.
My, my, how can you resist it? It’s folly to try.
“Mama Mia!” runs weekends at Ojai Art Center Theater, 113 S. Montgomery St., through July 14, with Friday and Saturday night performances at 7:30 and Sunday matinees at 2. Tickets are $30 general admission; $25 seniors and Art Center members; and $15 for those under 25.
You can purchase online at https://www. ojaiact.org or call 805-640-8797. This show is expected to sell out so try to get your tickets in advance.
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