It all crystallized for me in the second act during a medicore performance of the song “Does Your Mother Know”: I wanted to send out an “S.O.S.” for the national tour of “Mamma Mia” that opened Wednesday at the Saroyan Theatre.
Early in the show, I was able to carry on and cringe through the flubbed lighting cue at the end of the first-act finale. I winced but tried to maintain goodwill at the sight of a stagehand’s hand prematurely gripping the corner of a set piece in full view of the audience as he waited to move it while action continued feet away from him on stage — on several occasions. I gave the benefit of the doubt to an understudy in the role of Harry Bright after he flubbed the guitar intro to “Thank You for the Music” and then uttered what sounded like an awkward “Damn!”
I tried to overlook the uneven acting and singing in this non-Equity tour. Maybe it was just a bad night, I thought.
But “Does Your Mother Know” tipped the scales for me. The sound levels for Bailey Purvis, who plays the snooty Tanya, left her drowned out by the onstage and offstage ensemble members cooing the show’s trademark ABBA back-up harmonies. Aside from that, her performance was plastic and rote. The song should be devilish and exhilarating. Instead it just sort of rolled by.
This “Mamma Mia” just isn’t on the same level as the sparkling productions that came to Fresno in 2006 and 2008. (There’s one more performance 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 2.)
It wasn’t all bad. Chelsea Williams had a strong presence as Sophie, the bride-to-be who snoops in her mother’s diaries and invites three men to her wedding who might be her father. I loved the comic timing and full-bore enthusiasm of Sarah Smith as the spunky Rosie, one of two friends of Sophie’s mother who trek to the island for the wedding. Aside from the guitar incident, I ended up liking understudy Royce James McIntosh’s human-level portrayal of Harry Bright, one of the potential fathers.
The dancing was often sharp in the ensemble numbers. And the strength of the material, which cleverly weaves various ABBA songs into a cheerful semblance of a plot, helps the show smooth over some of this production’s ragged moments. The songs themselves, of course, can still gin up an audience, and the cast seemed to warm up in the final scenes.
But some of the performances fell flat for me. Georgia Kate Haege, in the pivotal mother role of Donna, can sing up a storm. But her Donna was just two notes: surly or peppy. Granted, hers isn’t the most deeply textured role in the history of American theater, but it was like watching someone flip a light switch: She’s bitter and angry, then, pow, she’s sweetness and light. She never managed to take me on an emotional journey.
Eric Presnall, as Sky, the fiancee, was an energetic dancer, but his singing and acting were on the bland side. Jeff Drushal, as Sam, another father candidate, was a weak link.
Even the minimalist set — consisting of whitewashed walls meant to evoke a slightly run-down Greek-island resort — seemed skimpy and cheap this time around. The setting is a staple of “Mamma Mia,” but the ambiance of the two hand-moved units suggested more an aged beach public restroom in need of renovation than a charming getaway.
All this didn’t seem to matter much to many members of the Fresno audience, which seemed uncharacteristically dead in the first act but slowly warmed up in the second, leading to the famed on-your-feet curtain call. People yelled and cheered at the end.
Unfortunately, weirdness with the follow spot — Sophie embarrassingly seemed to fade in and out like some science-fiction effect — reminded us till the end that this “Mamma Mia” let a great opportunity slip through its fingers.