By Bill Beard
There is indeed much to be said about the new production of Mamma Mia, the musical, in Aurora’s current “Broadway at the Paramount” series! ABBAsolutely!
Opening night was a celebration, with an audience that showed its enthusiastic support continuously, with spontaneous laughter, sometimes clapping with the music, and even in the case of the excited ladies sitting in front of me, often singing the lyrics along with the performers. But so what? This is a ‘feel good’ show. Why not show how ‘good you feel’?
Mamma Mia, the film, based on the original stage musical, premiered in July of 2008, starring Meryl Streep, Amanda Seyfried, Pierce Brosnan and Colin Firth; it received mixed reviews – from 4 out of 5 stars, with “all the swing and sparkle of sequined bell-bottoms” and “cute, clean, camp fun, full of sunshine and toe tappers”; down to 1 out of 5 stars, with “so base, so shallow and so hinged on meaningless spectacle” that it made the reviewer “need to vomit”!
Some nominations, but no awards; except for Pierce Brosnan, who won the Golden Raspberry Award as “Worst Supporting Actor”. Nevertheless, the film went on to gross a worldwide total of $602,609,487. But then we all know you can’t really trust critics anyway! Right?
Mamma Mia, the musical, on the other hand, has had a fantastic journey. It opened in London in April, 1999. It had pre-Broadway runs in Toronto in 2000, San Francisco and Los Angeles in 2001, and three months in Chicago in May to August 2001, before opening on Broadway on October 18, 2001; and it just closed last September 2015 after 5,773 performances, boasting the eighth longest-running Broadway show and the longest-running ‘jukebox musical‘ in Broadway history. However, the London West End production is still running at the Novella Theatre, and is booking tickets through March, 2017 (remember, it opened in April, 1999).
The musical’s success is based of course on the music of ABBA – Anni-Frid (Lyngstad), Benny (Andersson), Bjorn (Ulvaeus), and Agnetha (Faltskog) – four young Swedish pop singers who met in the late 1960s and worked together to become phenomenally popular in the 1970s and ’80s. They brought Sweden into the international spotlight and brought Euro-pop to the world’s attention. Their music has been internationally renown ever since.
“Jukebox musicals” are so called because they use the songs of one (or more) pop writer of the day which are so well known and loved that they are worth trying to “honor” by inserting them into some appropriate plot line. And whereas most standard musical theatre shows have new original songs written specifically to enhance and advance the story line, taking a grouping of already popular hit songs and writing a plot around them can be much more tricky, and can perhaps result in some contrived and curious sequencing. But award-winning British playwright Catherine Johnson has not only written a marvelously clever and charming play, she has also made it work by enhancing the lyrics of the songs and letting them contribute to the flow of the story.
The plot, as found in the playbill: “It’s the story of Sophie, a 20-year-old bride-to-be preparing for her wedding at her mother‘s charming Greek Island resort restaurant. Unbeknownst to her mother, she finds her mom’s diary and reads about her love-filled summer 20 years before with three different men. Sophie is convinced one of the men is her father, and she’s determined to find out
who. She sends a wedding invitation to each of the men, forging her mother’s signature on each note. When the men arrive the day before the ceremony, Donna, her mom, is shocked at their presence while Sophie is elated to finally meet her father. Quickly, each of the men realizes why they’ve been asked to the nuptials, and each is ready to walk their daughter down the aisle.”
Artistic Director Jim Corti has again put together a strong cast. Wow! He has filled the stage with an ensemble of gorgeous gals and enough buff and beefy young guys to populate any beach anywhere, making this a visual fantasy.
I congratulate Mr. Corti on casting newcomer Kirsten Frumkin in the ingenue role of Sophie. A recent graduate of Roosevelt’s College of Performing Arts, she confided to me that she had bravely walked into a non-Equity open audition and was thrilled to be cast, in the lead! Let me say that she was wonderful; perhaps a little challenged here and there (ABBA’s stuff is not easy to handle); sometimes the voice had a bit of an edge. But she definitely held her own among the Equity crowd, and we‘ll be seeing much more of her.
Amy Montgomery as Donna, Sophie’s mother, is a splendid actress, and manages the ABBA music deftly. But her career is filled with the classics – Shaw, Goldsmith, Shakespeare….lots of Shakespeare. Perhaps that’s partially why her Donna seemed too grounded, too disturbed by being confronted with three old lovers. We needed her to rise above the melee and find more of the high-spirited, lover of life she had been when she was Donna of Donna and the Dynamos. But her “recovery”, and the trio’s last moment re-visit to their hey day, provided a dazzling addition to the show’s finale, “Dancing Queen“.
Of course, the fun roles are the other two Dynamos, Jennifer Knox as Tanya and Sara Sevigny as Rosie. Scene stealers both! Show stoppers both!
Tanya’s “Does Your Mother Know” pushed all the bells and buttons, as well as the limits, in her cougar seduction of the “innocent” young Pepper, as perfectly played by Aaron Patrick Craven. If it hadn’t been so fiendishly funny, the number would need an X rating.
Sara Sevigny is a very funny lady! Her comic sense throughout was marvelous; but her handling of “Take a Chance on Me” was one of the funniest numbers I’ve enjoyed in ages! It’s wonderful to see an actress who knows how to use her comedic talent to it’s very peak and own it. And her work was perfectly balanced by the talented Steve O’Conner as Bill. What a comedy climax (pun intended, of course.)
The three “lover/fathers”, though central to the plot, seem to be a bit overshadowed by the ladies. But each has wonderful moments, (e.g., Mr. O’Conner’s brilliant comic contribution to the afore mentioned “Take a Chance on Me”). Mr. Diebold’s (Sam)
duet with Donna, “S.O.S.”, is one of the best numbers of the evening; and Harry‘s number with Donna, “Our Last Summer”, revealed Mr. Gillis’ superb voice, with just a wisp of British accent (loved his casual reference to “four weddings….and a funeral”). [Note: Mr. Gillis’ work with FWD, “Festival of Works in Development”, has become a vital new contribution to Chicago’s encouragement of new, developing musical theatre works. Congratulations.]
Kevin Depinet’s revolving set captured the magnificent aura of a Mediterranean beach, and worked basically well, save for the high peripheral walkway around the back of the acting area, which often seemed contrived and awkwardly used. The abundance of projections was interesting and beautiful, but were somewhat over used, often drawing focus unnecessarily.
Costumes by the talented Matt Guthier were bright, tight and right, though sometimes pushing the glitz a bit. I loved the designs for both Ms. Knox and Ms. Sevigny; and especially Ms. Frumkin’s subtle Greek Goddess wedding dress and wreath.
I have previously been very impressed with the choreography of William Carlos Angulo; his West Side Story was inventive, new, strong, sometimes almost shocking. Now perhaps he was trying to give Mamma Mia a similar new take. Much of the evening was fine; but the first big company number, “Money! Money! Money!“ just didn’t quite work for me. “Zombie stomping”, I wrote in the margin of my playbill. Thankfully, the rest of the show proved to be the exciting creative choreography expected from this artist.
Once again, let me urge our Stateline theatre lovers to take the pleasant drive down I-39 and east on I-88 to Aurora. The Paramount is their Coronado; but with a full schedule all year long. Mamma Mia plays another six weeks, through October 30! It is so very worth the drive! For information, call 630-896-6666, or go online at ParamountAurora.com.