Strong music marks shows in Aurora, Arvada

‘Songs for a New World,’ ‘Mamma Mia!’ leave audiences with memorable impressions


We spent a couple of happy evenings on a recent weekend surrounded by music, enhanced by live bands and fine voices …

“Mamma Mia,” by ABBA band members Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, first staged in 1999, is said to have shown in 40 countries — with at least seven performances every day somewhere on the world … It’s a joyous work, and obviously many in the Arvada Center audience were return visitors who swayed and sang along — making for an especially happy theater experience. All seemed to exit dancing and smiling. It plays through Sept. 30.

Set at Donna’s inviting rustic hotel on a Greek island, the appealing scenic design has a Mediterranean façade, planting and great lighting that works beautifully as a backdrop to the convoluted story. It is the story of young Sophie’s (Emily Luhrs) search for her father — she invites the three possible dads to her wedding — all were involved in a brief period in mom Donna’s (Shannan Steele) past, per a diary Sophie unearthed.

Wedding guests also include Donna’s former singing group buddies: tall, sassy Tanya (Piper Lindsay Arpan) and short, quick Rosie (Kitty Skillman Hillsabeck) bring memories — and a couple of choice performances — from their rocker days, especially “Dancing Queen.” Costumes are especially fun here …

Harry Bright, Bill Austin and Sam Carmichael were three guys in Donna’s life at the same time — probably one is the missing dad and Sophie is sure she’ll be able to tell … They arrive understandably confused, but soon get it and all want to walk Sophie down the aisle.

Readers probably are familiar with the story and music — why see it again? It’s just a joyous experience, with upbeat music, great voices, sound direction by Rod A. Lansberry, colorful costumes and a happy ending — and you can’t knock that!

“Songs for a New World” by Tony-winning composer Jason Robert Brown also greets the audience with a nifty set, designed by Sean Mallery. It’s a movable wall made from old wood frame windows, patched together like a crazy quilt. Panels move in and out — and because of differing textures and are especially interesting when worked in conjunction with lighting design throughout — also by Case.

Helen R. Murray, new executive producer at the Aurora Fox, debuts as director of this production. She is a playwright and former director of The Hub Theatre in Fairfax, Maryland. She has directed across the country and acted frequently in the Washington, D.C. area.

Behind the glass sits music director David Nehls and three string musicians: Violin 1, Deborah Fuller; violin 2, Jean Bolger of Colcannon; and cellist David Short are all musical theater veterans and the score is fine throughout, even if new to one’s ear. This is a regional premiere for this theatrical song cycle, which first played off-Broadway in 1995 and has had many performances around the world. It is written by multi-talented composer, lyricist, conductor, arranger, orchestrator, director and performer Jason Robert Brown.

Cast members Leonard Barrett Jr., Randy Chalmers, Sarah Rex and Leiney Rigg are wonderful singers whose voices blend beautifully. Each stands out in solo numbers as well as in duets and songs that include all four.

Music director David Nehls is also a composer and lyricist and for a number of years was the award-winning music director at the Arvada Center. His “Killer Wigs from Outer Space,” featured last year at the New York Music Festival, will be presented at the Aurora Fox on Oct. 29 (7:30 p.m.) as a benefit for the Denver Actors Fund.


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