Thursday, November 12, 2015

A Joy Re-Björn: On a Non-Equity Tour Years Down the Road, 'Mamma Mia!' Remains a Super Trouper -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Mamma Mia!
Cadillac Palace, Chicago
Thru November 15

It's been 14 years since I first saw Mamma Mia, on tour in Chicago before it opened on Broadway, where it ran until this past September. (It's still running in London, as it has since 1999.)

Until Thursday night, it had been 7 years since I last saw Mamma Mia, on another tour through Chicago. (I had also seen it in early 2002 in Melbourne, Australia, and in Chicago in 2003.)

I've always enjoyed the show, so it may not quite be accurate to say the musical made from ABBA songs is as good as--or even better than--ever. 

Though the non-Equity cast is largely excellent, some of the vocal timbres weren't quite idyllic, the 5-piece band sounded tinny at times, a few performers seemed rather young for their roles and in a couple cases, the classic ABBA songs packed a little less punch than I would have liked.

But still helmed by original director, Phyllida Lloyd, Mamma Mia! remains an excellent show and perhaps more appreciable than ever. 

Photo credit on all: Joan Marcus
Back when its use of beloved pop songs was a novelty in the musical theater realm--to my mind, only The Who's Tommy really precedes it as a modern songbook or jukebox musical--it was easy to jest about Mamma Mia's rather slight narrative.

But while the story of a 20-year-old Greek Islands girl named Sophie inviting to her wedding three of her mother's former lovers in order to determine which one is her father will never be mistaken for high drama, given the rash of middling to awful jukebox musicals that have followed in its wake, it's now easier to appreciate all that Mamma Mia! gets right.

While many subsequent songbook musicals have settled for telling biographical tales of a given artist--à la Jersey Boys, by far the best in that vein--and others have been so theatrically flimsy as to essentially be tribute concerts, Mamma Mia! book writer Catherine Johnson actually employs the ABBA songs to further the storytelling, more cohesively and successfully than any other example.

So while the show is one of the most influential pieces of musical theater in my lifetime for having spawned songbook/jukebox musicals en masse, it actually feels like a traditional, organic Broadway musical, albeit with a nifty gimmick.

It's easy to call Mamma Mia! a "fun" show, as I always have because it's entirely true.

But in watching it again--and how much I acutely recalled from 7+ years ago is a testament to the show, although knowing the music so innately abets this--I was pleasantly reminded just how strong its "bones" are.

No, the story isn't deep, but the same can be said for most operas and many musicals, and Lloyd's direction ensures it is coherent and easy to follow, with the songs fitting in seamlessly--I loved how many still elicit surprised gasps and/or laughter when the audience catches onto each ABBA classic and its clever usage--and the pacing is pretty much perfect.

Although Sophie (a quite likable Kyra Belle Johnson) could be called the show's protagonist, her mom, Donna (the winning, well-sung Erin Fish) is really the main character, surrounded by two ex-singing partners--the thrice-divorced Tanya (a fun Laura Michelle Hughes) and cheeky Rosie (a terrific Sarah Smith)--and unexpectedly, three former lovers from around the same time, Sam (Chad W. Fornwalt), Bill (Ryan M. Hunt) and Harry (Andrew Tebo). 

Also factoring in is Sophie's bridegroom, Sky (Stephen Eckelmann), and Mamma Mia! does a shrewd job of rotating all these characters--and more--into scenes and songs with each other in various combinations.

While the title song, "Dancing Queen," "Super Trouper," "Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)" and "Voulez-Vous" are all high-energy first act blasts, they are nicely complemented by the pathos of "Chiquitita" and "The Name of the Game."

This balance continues in the second act, and unlike most jukebox musicals where I might simply like the songs, here I found myself continually marveling at how well each one worked as "musical number."

"Under Attack" is rather imaginatively used to open Act II, and Fish's singing as Donna is particularly emotive on "Slipping Through My Fingers" and "The Winner Takes It All."

Tanya's romp through "Does Your Mother Know?" is a hoot in the hands of Hughes, and as always, Rosie and Bill's take on "Take a Chance on Me" is a highlight, merrily delivered here by Smith and Hunt.

Originating early in my 21st century embrace of musical theater, wholeheartedly rekindling my sheepish appreciation for the brilliance of ABBA and reshaping the Broadway landscape in ways that it mostly stands above, Mamma Mia! is a show I've always thought of fondly.

But whereas I might've begun to wonder if it was more a cheesy pleasure than a musical that really holds up against subsequent gems of the millennium--Hairspray, Wicked, Avenue Q, Billy Elliot, Spring Awakening, etc., etc.--an entirely enjoyable non-Equity (i.e. devoid of members of the acting union, as opposed to Broadway and many touring shows), latter-day touring edition served to silence any qualms that Mamma Mia! isn't truly a first-rate piece of theater.

I don't think I'd put it above the many of the aforementioned shows and some others, but in diggin' the Dancing Queen, "you can dance, you can jive, having the time of your life."

And whether you've seen it before--even in movie form--or not, there's no reason you shouldn't (still) love Mamma Mia!

Perhaps more than ever.

No comments: