Photo credit - Calixtro Romias - The Record
She was made to look older than her 24 years to play Mrs. Banks in “Mary Poppins,” and she was disguised in a pale face and dark braids as the somber Wednesday in “The Addams Family,” but, as director James Reed noted, audiences get to see the real Ashlyn Kelley as Sophie in “Mamma Mia!”
What a sight.
The actress shows off all of the acting chops — both comedic and poignant — she developed earning a theater degree at Sonoma State University, but it’s her musical prowess that stands tall in Stockton Civic Theatre’s production of “Mamma Mia!” The musical comedy opened to preview audiences Wednesday and Thursday and begins a month-long run of weekend shows tonight. Tickets are selling quickly.
Reputation alone sells a lot of tickets for the show crafted around the hits of ABBA, the Swedish pop music group that topped the charts from 1976-1982, but this production has more to offer than a good soundtrack.
Don’t misunderstand. The music is fantastic. What’s particularly noteworthy about it is the orchestration led by conductor Jon Robinson. The familiar tunes aren’t simple recreations of radio hits, with actors attempting to sound like the group that made them popular. Rather, the songs are tailored for each singer, and they’re performed to move the story along, elicit emotion or define a moment, as music in any good musical should.
Not only has Reed assembled musically gifted featured cast members to pull this off, he’s backed them with a live onstage band of Cynthia Dario, Robert Hull, Tom Coyan and Amy Dahlstrom on keyboards, Mark Shaver on guitar, Michael Andersen on bass and John Wells — who plays in the local ABBA tribute band Waterloo — on percussion, and a crucially talented chorus. They all breathe life into the familiar music.
Kelley rarely leaves the stage, is a part of 10 musical numbers, and essentially serves as the narrator. Her character, Sophie, raised by a single mom on a Greek island and about to marry Sky, invites three men to her wedding, any of whom could be her father. Their reunion with Sophie’s mom, Donna, drives the show’s plot, or what there is of it.
This show, as Reed and assistant director Sarah Spenker have staged it, is a concert with a little story thrown in between numbers.
Somehow, though, it all works. It’s just a fun two hours of music you recognize, a fantasy escape from a dreary winter day.
Kelley is the ingenue, delightful as Sophie, but the show belongs to Rhonda Cummings as Donna. Returning to SCT after a 17-year hiatus because life — raising two daughters and opening a dance company — took precedence, Cummings is a revelation.
She’s funny, touching and handles each song with the right tone, whether singing the eponymous “Mamma Mia!” or the more dramatic ”“The Name of the Game” or “The Winner Takes It All.”
The two leads are surrounded by a superb supporting cast, notably Debbie Robinson and Dawn Coyan as Donna’s best friends, and Dean Blount, Michael Gadeke and David Nelson as Donna’s former lovers and possible fathers of Sophie.
There’s more for the older cast members to work with, but Adam Green as Pepper, one of the young handsome employees of Donna’s taverna, is a scene stealer. His dance — choreographed by Karissa Kiriu — with Coyan’s flirty Tanya to “Does Your Mother Know” is one of the show’s highlights.
Set designer Brian Johnson has outdone himself in creating an inviting Greek island taverna, extending the stage out to cover the orchestra pit, and accommodating the band behind the action. It’s welcoming and the few pieces seem to move effortlessly, which adds to the quick pace of the show.
It’s the kind of musical that makes you want to dance along, and while Wednesday’s preview audience wasn’t up for that, the hunch is others will be.