Phoenix mini theater reviews: 'Mamma Mia!,' 'Hands on a Hardbody,' 'The Effect,' 'Gypsy,' and 'Ear'

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New productions include 'Gypsy' at Theater Works and an absurdist comedy inspired by van Gogh's 'Ear.'

One of the biggest hits in Broadway history gets its local premiere, but that’s not the only musical worth checking out in Phoenix. Here are this week’s theater reviews in a nutshell.

Great ★★★★★ Good ★★★★

Fair ★★★ Bad ★★ Bomb ★

‘Mamma Mia!’ … here we go again, and why not?

Phoenix Theatre’s “Mamma Mia!” is the first of what are sure to be many local productions of the jukebox musical featuring the pop hits of ABBA — and it’s hard to imagine anyone doing it better. The handsome Greek “taverna” set (designed by Robert Kovach) looks better than the most recent national tour, and the cast, a mix of Valley standouts and out-of-town pros, delivers soaring choruses and all the goofy charm you could wish for in this sublimely silly love story. Debby Rosenthal brings an earnest sincerity to the lead role of Donna, a bohemian mom who’s surprised at her daughter’s wedding by the arrival of three former beaus, all possible fathers of the bride. In the ingénue role of Sophie, Sarah Daniels is central-casting winsome and sings in a pure, unaffected soprano that makes all of her solos highlights. In this woman-centric comedy, the biggest laughs come courtesy of Donna’s gal pals, played by Elyse Wolf (as the glamorous divorcee) and Katie McFadzen (the aging granola girl); the latter teams up with her former Childsplay colleague D. Scott Withers on a hilariously lascivious “Take a Chance on Me.”

Bottom line: As breezy escapism, “Mamma Mia!” is irresistible. The fact that the pre-existing songs have been so seamlessly integrated into a book musical is impressive, but the spirit of the show is captured in the closing medley, when the cast puts on their best ’70s glam and lets loose with a “Waterloo” that will be stuck in your head for days. ★★★★½



Details: Reviewed Saturday, Sept. 9. Continues through Sunday, Oct. 15. Phoenix Theatre, 100 E. McDowell Road. $29 and up. 602-254-2151,

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Bennie (Justin Jutras) performs "Hunt With the Big Dogs" in Arizona Broadway Theatre's production of "Hands on a Hardbody." (Photo: Arizona Broadway Theatre)

‘Hands on a Hardbody’ ventures off the the beaten track

The title sounds like something you might see at Nearly Naked Theatre, but the musical “Hands on a Hardbody” isn’t a sex romp. Instead, the “hardbody” in question is a pickup truck, which 10 hard-up Texans are determined to win in an endurance contest: All they have to do is keep a hand on the prize longer than anybody else. Based on a documentary of the same name, the show was a bust on Broadway in 2013, probably for lack of big-budget razzle-dazzle, but it has a low-key charm and a great blues/country/rock score by the songwriting team of Amanda Green and Trey Anastasio of the jam band Phish. Arizona Broadway Theatre’s production boasts a cast of powerhouse singers, from Laron Lee Hudson’s R&B raveup “My Problem Right There” to Eleonore S. Thomas’ roof-raising gospel number, “Joy of the Lord.” There isn’t a whole lot to the plot. Instead, the show serves up a series of character sketches: among them an older man out of work after a back injury, a veteran suffering from PTSD, a young Latino with dreams of become a stuntman, and a defiant redneck woman with a long-suffering hubby.

Bottom line: These are characters you want to root for — especially since they’re the kind of ordinary folks that never get musicals written about them. ★★★★

Details: Reviewed Sunday, Sept. 3. Continues through Sunday, Sept. 24. Arizona Broadway Theatre, 7701 W. Paradise Lane, Peoria. Call for prices. 623-776-8400,

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"The Effect" at iTheatre Collaborative features (from left) Stacie Stocker, Miranda Gross and Torey Anderson. (Photo: iTheatre Collaborative)

In ‘The Effect,’ antidepressants kick-start a romance

“Is it love or pharmacology?” is the tagline for iTheatre Collaborative’s “The Effect,” a provocative 2012 drama by British playwright Lucy Prebble. It’s about a pair of 20-somethings (Miranda Gross and Torey Anderson) who agree to sign over their cellphones and four weeks of freedom for a clinical trial of a promising new antidepressant. When flirtation explodes into full-on erotic obsession, they don’t know how “real” their feelings are if their brains are supercharged on serotonin — that is, if either or both of them aren’t being fed placebos. Meanwhile, the doctors in charge (Stacie Stocker and Michael Hanelin) have some personal issues of their own. Prebble asks tough questions here, both timely ones about the state of psychiatry and timeless ones about the nature of love, but in a subtle shocker of an ending, she doesn’t offer easy answers.

Bottom line: There are lot of ideas at work here, but a committed cast makes sure that the drama is driven by the characters’ complex humanity. ★★★★

Details: Reviewed Sunday, Sept. 10. Continues through Saturday, Sept. 23. Herberger Theater Center, 222 E. Monroe St., Phoenix (Kax Stage entrance on Van Buren Street). $12-$25. 602-252-8497,,

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Theater Works' "Gypsy" features (from left) Scott Hyder, Kelli James and Amanda Glenn. (Photo: John Groseclose)

‘Gypsy’ has a powerhouse headliner, and a few clunky moments

Earlier this year Kelli James, who made her Broadway debut in 1987 in “Les Misérables,” told us that playing Mama Rose in “Gypsy” was No. 1 on her actor’s bucket list. And now she’s done it, starring in Theater Works’ season opener. James has a gorgeous voice, and she brings whirlwind intensity to the iconic character, the ultimate stage mom who pushes her daughters to the point of breaking on the road to stardom. The production also features a winning performance (and crystalline singing) by Amanda Glenn — yes, that’s Kimiko Glenn’s sister — as Louise, a mousy girl who, the audience well knows, will transform herself into a star stripper on the burlesque circuit at the end of the show. The supporting cast isn’t quite as strong. There’s a lot of hammy acting — and not just in the vaudeville bits — including a Benny Hill-style runaround that might have you humming “Yakety Sax” instead of Jule Styne’s score. As for those burlesque scenes, both the costumes and the staging shy away from anything too risqué.

Bottom line: “Gypsy” is a classic, but a fresher take on the material would make this production more memorable. ★★★

Details: Reviewed Friday, Sept. 8. Continues through Sunday, Sept. 24. Peoria Center for the Performing Arts, 8355 W. Peoria Ave. $14-$36. 623-815-7930,

‘Ear’ is macabre, bizarre, and pretty darn funny

For those who prefer their theater on the wild and wooly side, Space 55 Ensemble is fully loaded with shock value in “Ear,” a new play by Phoenix writer Ashley Naftule. Inspired by van Gogh’s infamous severed appendage, this absurdist comedy is about a painter (not-so-slyly named Vincent) who decides to give a piece of himself to his girlfriend on their six-month anniversary. Things get a lot weirder from there, and definitely require an “adult content” warning. While Vincent (Paul Kolecki) is off at the asylum dealing with a psychiatrist who just might be crazier than the inmates, his beloved Errata (Marcella Grassa) discovers that the ear has become a cosmic radio, playing cheesy ’80s pop alongside interstellar news updates. Duane Daniels gives a delightful, drolly deranged performance as Dr. Cochlear, and there are more laughs from Ernesto Moncada as hypermasculine self-help guru Don Pablo, an over-the-top infomercial incarnation of Carlos Castaneda.

Bottom line: The bad: Production values are strictly shoestring, some of the acting feels under-rehearsed, and Naftule indulges in a bit of comic riffing that doesn’t really have anything to do with the story. The good: You’re never going to guess where all this is heading. Just hope you have the stomach for it. ★★★

Details: Reviewed Saturday, Sept. 9. Continues through Sunday, Sept. 24. Space 55, 636 E. Pierce St., Phoenix. $15.

Reach the reviewer at or 602-444-4896. Follow him at and

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Article Phoenix mini theater reviews: 'Mamma Mia!,' 'Hands on a Hardbody,' 'The Effect,' 'Gypsy,' and 'Ear' compiled by Original article here

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