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It's summer fun with 'Mamma Mia!' and ABBA

“Mamma Mia!” is pure fun, a celebration of ’70s liberation and ABBA music. Just in time for Father’s Day and summer vacation, the Broadway blockbuster hit opened last week at the Oregon Cabaret Theatre in Ashland.

Sophie was raised by her single mom on a remote island in the Aegean. Sophie is determined to know who her father is and invites three men to the wedding, men her mother, Donna, slept with during that hot Greek summer 20 years ago. Pre-wedding jitters are way over-complicated by deception, anger, regret and desire — not to mention nostalgia — for the girl band, Donna and the Dynamos.

“Mamma Mia!” was written by Catherine Johnson with music and lyrics by ABBA members Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaenus, and some songs by Stig Anderson. ABBA’s music was Sweden’s largest export during the band’s most popular years and ensured the success of the jukebox musical romantic comedy “Mamma Mia!” when it was first performed in 1999.

With a cast of more than 15, it’s hard to acknowledge all the “Mamma Mia!” talent that filled the Oregon Cabaret stage. The entire cast has superb vocal ability and gifts for dance.

Amy Bodnar as Donna and Wesley Carpenter as her daughter, Sophie, lead the female cast, sympathetic and loving, joyous and angry. Bodnar particularly portrays that single-woman, working-mother role really well — strong, determined and disheveled, at one point so frustrated she’s ready to shoot herself with a battery-powered screwdriver. The mother-daughter play between Bodnar and Carpenter that highlights generational differences and new-found maturity is a delight. Not to be forgotten is Tony Carter as Skye, who’s not sure he’s really ready for marriage.

Rebecca K. Campbell is cast as Rosie, one of the Dynamos, along with Tiffany Cooper as Tanya. Both are so well cast not just because of their powerful voices but because of their simply irresistible sultry moves as matrons in the wedding party. As Rosie, Campbell is a sexpot, and Cooper as Tanya, certainly a cougar.

Sophie’s potential fathers are Tim Fullerton as Sam, Alex Boyles as Harry and Paul Michael Garcia as Bill. Each is so different from the other, one wonders at Donna’s serial attraction 20 years ago, but each accepts responsibility for their possible offspring. Fullerton as Sam has the larger role and leads many of the scenes; his voice is outstanding with depth and range.

La Beene and Makayla Royer’s costuming is spectacular. ABBA’s early clean Swedish good looks would later foretell ’80s bling, and in OCT’s “Mamma Mia!,” stretch onesies, glitter, feathers, bell sleeves and perhaps every platform shoe ever invented graced the set, no need for props or devices. The cast seems to change footwear with nearly every act, and some of those heels and wedges are so tall it’s a miracle that the dance numbers are perfectly executed and no one tripped. The male ensemble even performed “Lay All Your Love on Me” outfitted in revealing wetsuits and wearing flippers.

In fact, despite the fancy footwear, incredibly fancy footwork shakes the stage with athletic dance performances that defy the imagination. Both male and female actors execute splits, throws and high kicks while they belt out those ABBA lines, never pausing and seemingly never taking a breath. Valerie Rachelle and Lauren Blair, both phenomenal choreographers, team up as director and assistant director, and their talent shines.

“Mamma Mia!” is almost all dance, and so the Cabaret set design is open and clear of props. And while there is a second level to the set, it is hardly used, and most of the action is on the stage level. There’s just a few mobile pieces that roll on and off set as needed, and that gorgeous Grecian blue is everywhere with brilliant white, green and red to lend contrast.

“Mamma Mia!” ends with a satisfactorily sappy finish, but the encore is what’s so spectacular about those final moments of the play. There’s a full cast dance riot on stage with reprisals of “Mamma Mia” and “Dancing Queen” and then “Waterloo,” each rendition more excited than the last. Everybody gets into the act, starting with the full cast, the servers dancing along the side aisles, and the audience standing too, swaying to the music, waving their raised arms and singing along.

So plan to take some time off this summer for OCT’s production of “Mamma Mia!” Enjoy the themed menu, maybe a Dancing Queen cocktail, and get lost in some of the biggest pop sounds of the age.

“Mamma Mia!” continues at OCT through Aug. 18. The show runs for about two hours with one intermission. Brunch and dinner should be ordered in advance, but orders for drinks, appetizers and dessert can be placed before the show begins. For tickets and more information, see TheOregonCabaret.com or call the box office at 541-488-2902.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Maureen Flanagan Battistella at mbattistellaor@gmail.com.

Shae Celine, Wesley Carpenter, and Lea Sevola star in Oregon Cabaret's "Mamma Mia!" Photo by Bryon Devore