‘Mamma Mia!’ brings live theater back to NSMT

Tiffani Barbour (Rosie), Lexie Dorsett Sharp (Donna), and Merrill Peiffer (Tanya) in MAMMA MIA! – playing at North Shore Music Theatre Oct 5 – 17, 2021. Photos by Paul Lyden.

BEVERLY – When you’re returning after a 21-month absence, you want to start with something that’s a sure-fire hit, a crowd-pleaser of the first order.

That pretty much describes the musical “Mamma Mia!” the choice of North Shore Music Theatre owner and producer Bill Hanney to re-open his venue to live theater for the first time since “A Christmas Carol” closed in December 2019.

NSMT had a huge hit with “Mamma Mia!” when it was presented in 2018, prompting two extensions of the run, and this encore runs through Oct. 17.

The strength of NSMT artistic director Kevin P. Hill when he directs and choreographs is that he can take a show’s strengths and amplify them. Here he takes the many dance numbers and puts them in the hands of a sleek, strong, sexy and talented ensemble of dancers and lets them strut their stuff, even when hilariously outfitted with masks, snorkels, wetsuits and flippers for “Lay All Your Love On Me.”

Al Bundonis (Bill), Sara Bartoszek (Sophie), David Elder (Sam) and Jesse Sharp (Harry) in MAMMA MIA! – playing at North Shore Music Theatre Oct 5 – 17, 2021. Photos by Paul Lyden.

He has also filled the cast with voices that can handle the high-octane score – 22 numbers written by Abba’s Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus – that is so well-known and so infectious that music director Bob Bray could have conducted a show-long sing-along. In fact, during a recent performance, an overly enthusiastic singing-along theater-goer upstaged Lexie Dorsett Sharp as Donna Sheridan in the number “I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do.”

Hill also wrings every last laugh out of Catherine Johnson’s book, The story is set in the Greek isles where a 20-year-old girl named Sophie Sheridan (Sarah Bartoszek) is scheduled to marry boyfriend Sky (Julio Rey) in just a few months.

She would like to have the father she’s never met there and finds in her mother’s diary notes about the three men her mother spent time with the summer before she was born.

There’s Sam (David Elder, reprising his 2018 role), now a divorced father of two, whose fight with Donna ended up pushing her into the arms of two others: Bill Austin (Al Bundonis, also returning), a globetrotting travel writer who hasn’t put down roots anywhere and sees no reason to; and Harry (Jesse Sharp), formerly known as the guitar-playing “Headbanger” but now a staid Londoner.

To Sophie’s surprise, they all say yes, and show up together at her mother’s taverna the day before the wedding, Chaos ensues.

Donna Sheridan (Lexie Dorsett Sharp) is the single mom who owns the taverna on the island, with a constant struggle to keep things going and the bank manager at bay.  She’s able to put heart and soul into her vocal numbers, including a bring-down-the-house, fiery rendition of “The Winner Takes it All.” Elder as Sam shines as he sings to Donna about “Our Last Summer.”

Also on the guest list for the wedding are two of Donna’s BFFs who serve as perfect comic foils: the fun-loving Rosie (Tiffani Barbour, an audience favorite again after her 2018 performance) and the man-eating Tanya (Merrill Peiffer), two thirds of the former girl group Donna and the Dynamos, who reunite for the occasion. Rosie is averse to long relationships and Tanya is a three-time loser in the game of marriage, but neither will end up being lonely during the weekend.

You are advised to stay put when the show seems to be ending …. because it isn’t. There’s more to come, and more colorful costumes and platform shoes.

Many years ago, just before the first national tour of “Mamma Mia!” hit Boston in August of 2001, a press representative from Broadway in Boston was trying to explain it to me at a press conference about the show.

“It takes place on a Greek island where a young girl invites three possible fathers to her wedding. There’s no original score. The music is all by the Swedish pop group Abba. And it’s selling out every show in Toronto.”

I looked at her with blank eyes and thought theatergoers in Toronto had collectively lost their minds.

And then I saw it for the first of what is now several times and, somehow … it works. “Mamma Mia!” has no message or hidden meaning. It’s not trying to say something other than: Fun to be had here.

You’ll probably be up there happily gyrating with the rest of the Baby Boomers when the encore of “Dancing Queen” is performed.

The North Shore Music Theatre production of “Mamma Mia!” Music and lyrics by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, and some songs with Stig Anderson. Book by Catherine Johnson. Originally conceived by Judy Craymer. Directed and choreographed by Kevin P. Hill. Scenic direction by Kyle Dixon. Costume design by Dana Pinkston. Lighting design by Jose Santiago. Sound design by Don Hanna. At the North Shore Music Theatre thru Oct. 17. nsmt.org.

Sara Bartoszek (Sophie), Julio Rey (Sky), and the ensemble of MAMMA MIA! – playing at North Shore Music Theatre Oct 5 – 17, 2021. Photos by Paul Lyden.