Girl group Donna and the Dynamos are back together in the ABBA jukebox musical “Mamma Mia!” Pictured (L to R) are Robin Dunavant as Tanya, Kira Lace Hawkins as Donna Sheridan and Jennifer Dow as Rosie. Photo by Gary Nieter, Times-Union.
Girl group Donna and the Dynamos are back together in the ABBA jukebox musical “Mamma Mia!” Pictured (L to R) are Robin Dunavant as Tanya, Kira Lace Hawkins as Donna Sheridan and Jennifer Dow as Rosie. Photo by Gary Nieter, Times-Union.
Over the many years I’ve been covering the Wagon Wheel Center for the Arts, a number of things have changed, but there’s also been a few consistencies on which I’ve come to rely.

One of those consistencies for at least the last dozen years has been Kira Lace Hawkins’ passionate, all-in performances. Whether she’s playing Diana Goodman in the 2017 production of “next to normal” – one of my all-time favorite shows at Wagon Wheel – or Donna in the latest show, “Mamma Mia!,” she commits fully. Like three-time Oscar winner Meryl Streep, Hawkins becomes her character and does what she needs to do in order to transport the audience to that world.

And Hawkins continues to have an outstanding vocal range to deliver the goods, especially on songs like “Our Last Summer” or “Slipping Through My Fingers” in “Mamma Mia!”

I think Hawkins actually makes Donna more human in the Wagon Wheel’s production of the ABBA jukebox musical than Streep did in the 2008 film version. To clarify, it’s not that Streep wasn’t great in the movie – she obviously was – but I think when Hawkins’ Donna complains about the roof needing fixed, it’s a bit more believeable. Hawkins is pretty down-to-earth in real life so she brings that airness of reality to her stellar performance.

Of course, “Mamma Mia!” isn’t all about Donna, and Hawkins has plenty of castmates with real talent to back her up and tell the story.

In the musical, Sophie Sheridan (Bailee Endebrock) is getting married to Sky (Aaron James McKenzie) on the Greek island where she lives with her mother, Donna. Donna’s two best friends – Rosie (Jennifer Dow) and Tanya (Robin Dunavant), who formed a girl group with her back in the day – come for the special occasion, as does Sophie’s two best friends – Ali (Laura Nicole Guley) and Lisa (Lilianna Solum).

But unbeknownst to Donna, Sophie invited three of Donna’s exes, one of whom might be Sophie’s father. There’s the British guy Harry Bright (Andy Robinson), who used to be known as Harry Headbanger; the Australian adventurer, Bill Austin (Michael Pacholski), who Rosie falls for in the show; and the American, Sam Carmichael (Anthony Cataldo), who is still in love with Donna 20 years later and has two sons of his own.

Audiences may remember Endebrock as Kathy Selden in this summer’s production of “Singin’ in the Rain.” A wonderful performance then, Endebrock also delivers a quality performance in “Mamma Mia!” She pairs well with Hawkins as mother and daughter, and they make a great duet on “Slipping Through My Fingers.”

As the three former flames of Donna, Cataldo has the best chemistry with Hawkins on the stage. Her Donna and his Sam remind me of Sam and Diane from the television show “Cheers” – their chemistry can’t be denied despite how much they argue and fight. They can say they never want to see each other again, but they say it while staring deep into each other’s eyes. It’s the kind of chemistry that makes you root for them in the end.

Cataldo has been leaving his mark on the Wagon Wheel stage all summer long, and he’s as interesting to watch in “Mamma Mia!” as any other show this summer.

I also loved Dow as Rosie and Dunavant as Tanya. I wish their roles were more fleshed out in the show, but you can only fit so much in two hours.

Dow has always been the Wagon Wheel’s Lucille Ball in my book, and when she chases Bill in “Take a Chance on Me,” it’s a lot of fun to watch her pursue him. Dow can do drama, too, but she has impeccable comedic timing.

Tanya is a woman with three ex rich husbands, and Dunavant plays her sublime. The highlight for her character, however, comes thanks to hot island boy Pepper (Henry Julian Gendron) who likes older women. It was fun to watch Gendron do his best “Magic Mike” moves as Pepper to try and snag himself a cougar, but equally as entertaining to see Dunavant’s Tanya blow him off. I’d go see “Mamma Mia!” again just to see their number “Does Your Mother Know?”

In the Broadway musical, at the beginning of Act II, there’s a dream sequence which I’m pretty sure wasn’t in the film version (I only saw it once). Sophie’s nightmare involves “sharks,” her three potential fathers and Sky in a wedding dress. The wedding dress caught the audience off guard and made me think briefly that we switched from “Mamma Mia!” to “Kinky Boots” or at least “La Cage aux Folles.” Both shows would have been great, though it was just a dream sequence in the end. Not sure how much direction for that scene came with the musical and how much was born from Artistic Director and Choreographer Scott Michaels’ brain, but like “Does Your Mother Know?” and “Voulez Voux,” it kept the show from drowning in too much serious matter. They are moments I enjoyed and just wanted to highlight.

After the storyline in the musical is over, and the cast has taken its well-earned bows, they all come back for a megamix of ABBA songs, including “Mamma Mia,” “Waterloo” and “Dancing Queen.” The audience Friday night ate that up. They were already standing for the standing ovation, but then they really began to dance, clap and sing along. It was a mini concert that roused their spirts and left them with a smile on their faces.

Of course, if they’re like me, they’ve probably still got an ABBA song or two stuck in their head. “Mamma Mia” won’t leave my head Sunday afternoon as I’m reflecting on Friday night’s show.

Overall, my rating of “Mamma Mia!” (out of four) 3.25.

“Mamma Mia!” is at the Wagon Wheel Center for the Arts through Saturday. Tickets can be purchased through the box office; by calling 574-267-8041 or 866-823-2618; or online at www.wagonwheelcenter.org.