Saturday, February 18, 2017

Does 'Mamma Mia!' Retain All Its Joys in Marriott's Intimate, In-the-Round Setting? Abba-solutely! -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Mamma Mia
Marriott Theatre, Lincolnshire, IL
Thru April 16

I've seen dozens of musicals at Marriott Theatre over the years, and can't think of one I didn't enjoy, with many I truly relished.

Part of the Marriott Resort in Lincolnshire, IL, featuring in-the-round seating and attracting what's been purported as the largest subscriber base in the country, the theater began operations in 1980.

When I first started attending at the beginning of this century, indoctrinated to musical theater as a kid but not having seen many shows in adulthood, the Marriott served as a great venue to catch fine renditions of classics of the canon.

These included Damn Yankees, 1776, Funny Girl and The Pajama Game, none of which I've seen produced elsewhere, even as I became a vociferous musical theater attendee across Chicago and occasionally in New York, London and elsewhere.

But now, much of what I see at Marriott--aside from their bold, original commissions like Hero and October Sky--are musicals I've seen elsewhere, typically in much larger venues.

As I'm typically relegated to nosebleed seats at, for instance, the Loop's cavernous Oriental and Palace Theatres, the intimacy at Marriott is always welcome.

And part of the fun of going there is noting how well talented directors, choreographers, set & costume designers, musicians and actors are able to replicate the essence of musicals that once had far more grandiose scenery.

To the credit of everyone involved, I'm usually exuberantly impressed; Marriott's takes on Les Misérables, La Cage Aux Folles, Spring Awakening and Man of La Mancha still stand out as particularly remarkable, among many other fine productions.

But especially in writing reviews, I often wonder if Marriott's excellent distillations of shows I've seen on a larger scale are providing holistic introductions to the source material; i.e. are patrons seeing musicals for the first time in-the-round--where no scenery can block the view of audience members on all sides--getting the full effect?

More so than possibly ever, with the ebullient current rendition of Mamma Mia!, I would say, "Yes!"

Certainly it helps that the musical in which songs by Sweden's legendary ABBA quartet are employed to tell an original story--still describable as "slight" but far better than those of myriad "jukebox musicals" to follow--has always delighted me and still does.

Loosely defined, jukebox musicals--which use pre-existing and typically popular songs, rather than those newly composed for the stage--have long been around, with classic tunes by the likes of George Gershwin and Cole Porter being compiled into "new" musicals.

But in terms of those using rock or pop music, Mamma Mia!--which debuted in London in 1999--can be regarded as the first (excepting perhaps The Who's Tommy, which turned a recorded rock opera into a stage musical).

I first saw it on tour in Chicago in 2001--well before it hit Broadway--and soon after in Melbourne, Australia, as well three other times before now. 

Though quite popular and beloved from the get-go, the ABBA musical--with a book by Catherine Johnson weaving together songs written by the group's two male "B" members, Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus--has generally garnered comments along the lines of "It's not Shakespeare" about its storyline.

But the narrative about a 20-year-old girl living in the Greek Islands with her mother--having never been told who her father is among three possible candidates and impulsively inviting them to her upcoming wedding behind mom's back--incorporates the title song, "Chiquitita," "One of Us," "Knowing Me, Knowing You," "Slipping Through My Fingers," "The Winner Takes It All" and other ABBA tunes so well that oblivious audience members would likely not suspect they weren't specifically written for this show.

And with the single mom, Donna Sheridan (nicely played here by Danni Smith) having been a former singer in a trio with pals who arrive for the wedding, high energy ABBA hits like "Dancing Queen" and "Super Trouper" are also wonderfully worked in without feeling shoehorned.

In Lincolnshire, the soon-to-be-wed Sophie is delightfully embodied by Tiffany Tatreau, a young actress who has become one of my favorites in Chicagoland over the past 15 months, beginning with Ride the Cyclone--a new musical staged at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre under the direction of Rachel Rockwell, who helms this Mamma Mia!--and continuing with a string of shows at Marriott (Spring Awakening, Sister Act) and elsewhere (Griffin Theatre's Bat Boy).

So I found it rather fun that when Mamma Mia! begins with two of Sophie's BFFs arriving for her wedding, one of them is played by Lillian Castillo, who I fondly recall alongside Tatreau in both Ride the Cyclone and Sister Act.

The redheaded Tatreau makes for a rather spirited Sophie, and amiably handles interactions with her mom, "dads" (Derek Hasenstab as Bill Austin, Karl Hamilton as Harry Bright and Peter Saide as Sam Carmichael) and fiance Sky (Russell Mernagh).

I was again reminded how often funny, and occasionally risque, Mamma Mia! is, with Donna's old singing partners, Tanya (Meghan Murphy) and Rosie (Cassie Slater), making for wonderful comic relief.

The unseen band hits all the right notes, the almost entirely Equity cast is excellent throughout, costume designer Theresa Ham works in some dazzling hues, choreographer Ericka Mac makes good use of the square stage and, under the always dynamic direction of Rockwell, set designer Scott Davis clever compensates for Marriott's spatial considerations, which precluded the typical white & blue Greek taverna (which Donna owns) as a central stage piece, but smartly works it in nonetheless.

I last saw a "downtown" Mamma Mia! in November 2015, and it likewise reiterated just how much I like this show.

But there was something about finally seeing this "island musical" up close that made it especially buoyant, and though I could quibble about a couple of the primary vocal timbres or point to a few of the cast members seeming notably young for their parts, the truth is that I had a smile on my face throughout the whole thing and couldn't wait to dance in the aisles during the "encore."

"You can dance, you can jive, having the time of your life," goes ABBA's quintessential "Dancing Queen," and with my mom alongside, indeed I was.

If you've seen and loved Mamma Mia! before, you should certainly be smitten by this rendition, and if you've never taken a chance on this once newly-cheeky but now nearly-classic musical, the answer to "Voulez-Vouz" (do you want (to)?) should be rather apparent by now.

"I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do."

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