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Review: Sip the wine, leave your inhibitions for American Stage's 'Mamma Mia!' in the park

Julia Rifino, as Sophie, and Alison Burns, as Donna, perform in a rehearsal for the musical ‘Mamma Mia!’ on April 4, 2019. American Stage is putting on the musical for their annual American Stage in the Park. (ALLIE GOULDING | Times)
Published Apr. 15

ST. PETERSBURG — There's no way this spring's American Stage in the Park production of Mamma Mia! won't set a sales record for cheese plates and pours of Chardonnay.

The setting, for starters, begs for it. Designer Jerid Fox has concocted just about as pretty a production as we've seen in Demens Landing, with the teals and turquoises of a faux Grecian seaside blending blissfully into the sunset-tinted marina behind the stage.

And then there's glittery, sequinny, snickering camp of the show itself, directed by American Stage's artistic director Stephanie Gularte. It goes down a lot smoother when you're a couple of olives and a half a bottle deep.

That's not to say Mamma Mia! couldn't sashay by on its own merits, its charming performances and spirited choreography. But as one might expect from a show built around the songs of ABBA, we're not exactly dealing with Sophoclean tragedy here. When it takes itself too seriously, the plot falters. When it luxuriates in its own soapy silliness — which is often — it flies like the breeze.

The ingeniously simple setup: 21-year-old Sophie (Julia Rifino) is getting married at the Greek island getaway managed by her mom Donna (Alison Burns), and wants her father to walk her down the aisle. Problem is, she doesn't know who the dude is. After finding one of Donna's old diaries, she narrows it to one of three men: Globe-traveling writer Bill (Armando Acevedo), stoic architect Sam (Jim Sorensen) and colorful rocker-turned-banker Harry (Larry Alexander). So she invites them all to the wedding to figure it out.

As an excuse to fast-forward to sing-along songs like Dancing Queen and Super Trouper, the first act couldn't be more efficient. And it allows plenty of leeway to pair the principals up with a cornucopia of enjoyable side players, including Donna's vivacious old bandmates Tanya (Jennifer Byrne) and Rosie (Becca McCoy), Sophie's Ken doll fiance Sky (Cameron Hale Elliott) and flirty tavern boy Pepper (Erick Ariel Sureda).

While Sophie, played with bright-eyed optimism by Rifino, is the play's ostensible heroine, it is Donna who shines as its center. Those in her orbit speak of her with reverence, as "an icon of female independence" and leader of "the world's first girl power band." Burns captures the slightly tomboyish spunk Meryl Streep brought to a 2008 film adaptation, whizzing around the stage with a power drill on the delightful titular number, absorbing the park's desire for fun and froth and exuding it back in sunrays.

Their friends bring brightness and lightness to their roles, too. Acevedo plays Bill with a dim, puppy-doggish devotion; Sorensen's Sam has the stiff, stoic command of a news anchor. Alexander, especially, seems to relish every moment as Harry, flinging his body into each interaction with a loose, Bill Nighy-ish flamboyance. And Byrne is perfectly cast as the Glamazonian Tanya, a font of physical comedy towering over the rest of the company. Her delirious, hung-over dance-off with Sureda on Does Your Mother Know is choreographer Shain Stroff's finest moment in a night full of them.

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There are moments when the comedy gets too on-the-nose (a man in a wedding gown as a sight gag? is that really an actual punch line in 2019?) but in general, the cast's brunchy, sorority-sister chemistry carries the first act and early part of the second. Sexual playfulness! Double entendres! Vino! Opa!

The fun tends to flag as the wedding gets closer. Donna gets some big, ballady vocal moments, including an absolute knockout of a final note on The Winner Takes It All, but even as they're unfolding, you find yourself waiting for the next splashy pop routine. And no spoilers here for the few who haven't seen the musical or film, but no matter how you're hoping the who's-your-daddy question plays out, the climactic wedding doesn't deliver a satisfying payoff. To the contrary, Donna's storyline just feels like a copout, especially given the whole "icon of female independence" thing.

If one squints, one might see some meaning in subtextual questions of self-exploration, of Sophie's curiosity and frustration in not yet knowing exactly who she is. We're all just trying to find an identity that fits.

But thinking that hard about a sugar-sprinkled like confection Mamma Mia! feels like a waste of brain waves, especially when the sun's going down and there's a bottomless barrel of white Zin and feta spread at the snack bar.

Again, no spoilers, but the jumpsuits do make one more appearance, and then some. By that point, if the white Zin's done its thing, you'll be up from your blanket and dancing to Waterloo, too.

Contact Jay Cridlin at cridlin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

If you go

Mamma Mia!

Runs through May 12. Since this is a park production, you can bring a cooler (but no alcoholic beverages) to have a picnic. You can also purchase food, beer, wine and sodas inside Demens Landing Park. Bring your own folding chair or blanket for seating. $20 general lawn admission, $35-$40 premium blanket seating, $45-$50 reserved chair seating. Park opens at 6 p.m. Show starts at 8 p.m. Bayshore Drive and Second Ave. S, St. Petersburg. (727) 823-1600. americanstage.org.

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