Cottage Theatre reopens with Mamma Mia

Opening night of Mamma Mia in the newly remodeled Cottage Theatre was like a sunny day after a long cold winter.

The first show of the 2022 season was not a heavy, thought-provoking drama. We didn’t need that right now, though the time will certainly come. What we needed was exactly what Tony Rust, his actors, the crew and the musicians delivered: familiar songs, a functional set and a lot of fun.

The story is a simple one. A young woman raised without a father has always been curious about the mystery man. She reads her mother’s diary and discovers that there are three possible fathers. She invites all three of them to her wedding, without telling her mother, convinced that she will know which one is her dad. Kind of like “Three Coins in a Fountain,” only not really. Then she will have him give her away to her fiancé Sky, played with perfect sweetness and mushy-eyed new love by Eric Elligott. 

The show opens with Sophia, delightfully played with sweet innocence by Kassi McGregor, explaining to her best friends what she has done. Lisa (Stefhani Anderson) and Ali (Maddie Page) are thrilled with the idea. 

Meanwhile, Donna (Tracy Nygard), Sophia’s mother, is doing the typical mother-of-the-bride stuff: worrying whether everything will be ready for the wedding, bemoaning how fast her girl has grown up, etc. Tracy Nygard absolutely owns the stage every time her character sings. She has an amazing voice and her clarity and projection have everyone in the audience paying attention. Even when she’s clowning around (sprawling across a table, throwing herself on her bed), she is amazing and never misses a beat.

Speaking of clowning around, Pepper (Matt Arscott) and Eddie (Aislinn Wright Mirsch) bring energy and comic relief throughout the play. They shift from Ensemble players to hired help and add fun whenever they pop up. When Pepper tries to put a move on the much older Tanya (played to perfection by Jennifer Mandeville Schulz), the two shine in “Does Your Mother Know?”

The plot thickens when the three potential dads show up. I was a little put off at first when the dads seemed a bit wooden in their meeting with Donna, but they all blossomed when they had some songs to sing. Harry (Joshua Sayre), Bill (John Wilson) and Sam (Joshua Carlton) were distinct characters with the personalities of the men adding a lot. Harry’s gentle sweetness in his “Our Last Summer” duet with Donna was a beautiful blend of voices. I wanted to hear it again. Sam’s earnestness and frustration came through in “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” and Wilson was unforgettable when he tried (but not very hard) to convince Rosie (Janet Rust) he was unavailable in “Take a Chance on Me.”

During the remodel the theater gave up the orchestra pit that housed the musicians for the musicals. Granted, they were probably the best seats in the house, but I thought I would miss that separation. In this show, however, I discovered that it was nice to see the little 5-piece band gracefully directed by Mark VanBeever. VanBeever also played the synthesizer, the tambourine and vocalized in at least one number. (He was the “Uh-huh” in “Knowing You, Knowing Me.”)

I have to mention the amazing Janet Rust here. She not only choreographed the show, she played Rosie to a T: serious, supportive, clowning around. And when we had Janet, Jennifer Mandeville-Shulz and Tracy Nygard all performing together flawlessly, well Wow. Just Wow.

The cast was rounded out by the Ensemble featuring Chris Carter, Jeff Carter, Lexi Chipman, Amber Hagen, Elizabeth Peterson, Lindy Lou Smith and Lani Wright.   

Mamma Mia runs through April 24 at the Cottage Theatre. For ticket availability, call 541-942-8001 or visit Cottage