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Theater Review: 'Mamma Mia!' heralds NorShor's rebirth

Justin Peck (left) is Bill Austin and Courtney Groves is Sophie Sheridan during a dress rehearsal for the Duluth Playhouse production of Mamma Mia at the Norshor Theater in Duluth. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com

From the moment the opening night audience for "Mamma Mia!" walked into the restored NorShor Theatre, I was overwhelmed by the inescapable conclusion that the Duluth Playhouse is not just another "community theater."

Long before the doors even opened, the entire run of the popular jukebox musical was sold out. Through those doors on Thursday night, there was food and drink to consume, stairways to explore, songs and speeches to hear, and to top it off, a toe-tapping show to enjoy.

Sophie Sheridan (Courtney Groves) is engaged to get married to this nice Sky (Derek Bromme), but has invited the three men who might be her father — Sam (Shad Olsen), Harry (Jason Scorich) and Bill (Justin Peck) — to her wedding, without telling them or her mother, Donna (Jen Burleigh-Bentz), what is going on.

The plot of "Mamma Mia!" is spit and baling wire just to justifying singing ABBA's songs. During scene changes, the cast and crew are always skipping, swaying or striding to the catchy music. But if Donna and the Dynamos only exist as an excuse to sing "Super Trouper," then that is just fine with me.

"Dancing Queen" is the first act showstopper, especially with all the naughty bits director-choreographer Michael Matthew Ferrell works into the number (Interesting how many solos and trios there are for songs by a quartet with two lead vocalists). The guys doing soft-shoe wearing flippers also earned a big roar.

The songs get more serious after intermission, starting with Donna and Sam's "S.O.S" duet, Olsen's "Knowing Me, Knowing You" solo, and then Donna's double-dose of drama with the poignant "Slipping Through My Fingers" and the powerful "The Winner Takes It All" with Burleigh-Bentz's epic triumphant final note.

As mother and daughter, Burleigh-Bentz and Groves have a nice "Sheridan Girls" vibe. Groves makes "The Name of the Game" work way better than it should in that moment with those lyrics, and when she says "I don't know who my dad is," or finally decides who should walk her down the aisle, your heart strings actually get plucked.

Donna's wing women especially shine. Vicki Fingalson's sultry red-tressed Tanya works in a high note elevated and flat on her back in "Does Your Mother Know?" Then Tanya Moore's sassy Rosie belts out "Take a Chance on Me," her musical-chairs seduction of Bill, the end of which is an absolute scream.

Ann Gumpper's scenic design emphasizes light yellows and deep blues in contrast to the NorShor's red walls and seats. A painted "stone" floor turns from sun bleached white to glowing gold under Jeff Brown's lights.

The thrust stage brings the action closer to the audience, and the view from the balcony is pretty great, especially on group numbers like "Voulez Vous." Overall, the sound was impressive first time out of the box, with some adjustments to be made with speakers down front. The only thing to be missed from the Depot theater will be the extra-wide gap between rows of seats.

The "I Do, I Don't, But I Do" ending is capped off by an extended curtain call that gave the audience ample opportunities to clap in time and sing along with ABBA's music, and cheer their heads off.

The run of the show is sold out, but standby tickets might be available at the door, one hour before showtime.

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