Chicago Theatre Review
Thank You For the Music
Mamma Mia! – Paramount Theatre
Jim Corti opens his fifth season with the splashy 2001 smash hit that became a cult classic several years ago, especially among Baby Boomers. This musical was the genesis for Broadway’s popular and endless line of juke box musicals. Weaving a flimsy, but clever story around almost two dozen hits from the ABBA songbook, the compositions of Benny Andersson, Bjorn Ulvaeus and Stig Anderson, this entertaining stage musical evokes fond memories of that carefree disco era. It also helps erase the recollection of a somewhat disappointing film version that popped up a few years ago. But here’s an opportunity to see the show live, in a polished production that demonstrates how the musical should look and sound. And while this production isn’t perfect, Corti provides much of the fun found in these infectious tunes, bathed in island sunshine and glittering spandex, platform boots, disco mirror balls and concert lighting effects. Corti’s production is a banquet for both the eyes and ears.
For anyone unfamiliar with this show, Catherine Johnson’s slight story centers around Sophie, a young bride-to-be who’s burning to know the identity of her father, so he can give her away at her wedding. She’s secretly read her mom’s diary and has narrowed the search down to three possible dads. Unbeknownst to Donna, her mother, Sophie’s invited all three men to the ceremony on the Grecian island where they live. The rest of the papery thin plot, which is just a device to connect the ABBA songs into a story, centers around the mystery of who is the real father. However, most audiences don’t flock to this show for its story, but rather to experience the music performed live and to relive the disco era these songs evoke.
Twenty-eight of Chicago’s most talented triple threats breathe life into Jim Corti’s production. Amy Montgomery, known primarily for her performances at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, brings a maternal quality to the leading role of Donna Sheridan. But while she has the requisite chemistry with her daughter, Ms. Montgomery seems to be strangely irritated with almost every other character around her. The actress relates nicely to her old gal pals, Tanya and Rosie, her two former singing partners, especially during their musical numbers. But she never seems to really warm up to any of the three men who may be Sophie’s father. This makes the ending seem even more contrived than it already is. Ms. Montgomery has a pleasant singing voice and she certainly embodies the strength necessary for a single mother running a Greek taverna all by herself. Her renditions of “The Winner Takes it All” and “Slipping Through My Fingers” are her most heartfelt moments, as she takes us on emotional journeys in each musical soliloquy. It’s just sometimes difficult to empathize with Donna or find her very likable.
Jennifer Knox and Sara Sevigny are very good as Tanya and Rosie. Together with Montgomery, the three rip up the stage in their musical numbers, soaring through familiar hits like “Mamma Mia,” “Super Trooper,” “Waterloo” and the contagious “Dancing Queen.” The trio bring the audience to their feet, heads bopping up and down, hands clapping and bodies swaying, particularly during the curtain call megamix.
This production has an exceptional talent in young Kiersten Frumkin as Sophie Sheridan, Donna’s 20-year-old daughter, who’s about to tie the knot with her handsome boyfriend. This gifted young lady brings a sincerity and an honest freshness to the role which makes us truly care about her. Ms. Frumkin can sing and dance with the best of them–and she’s joined by the best of them, a terrifically talented supporting ensemble who never hold back the energy.
And as Bill, Sam and Harry, the three prospective fathers, actors Steve O’Connell, Jeff Diebold and Michael Gillis provide strong foils for the ladies, each demonstrating vocal ease and fine acting chops. Rosie and Bill’s duet, “Take a Chance on Me,” is appropriately comic and delightful, thanks to the two skilled performers. As Harry, Mr. Gillis shares the lovely “Our Last Summer” with Ms. Montgomery, offering a gorgeous voice that’s pure Broadway. And Sam, as portrayed by Mr. Diebold, displays his musical prowess in songs like “S.O.S,” “Thank You For the Music” and, especially, “Knowing Me, Knowing You.”
Although the story’s pretty thin, and some of the transitions between scenes feel a bit off, Jim Corti’s latest offering is a lot of fun. The show’s supported by topnotch musical direction and a talented pit orchestra, all compliments of the gifted Tom Vendafreddo. Spirited choreography by William Carlos Angulo, assisted by Aubrey Adams, nicely revisits those dazzling days of disco. Clothed in Matt Guthier’s sparkling costumes, set into motion upon Kevin Depinet’s revolving set, accented with animated projections by Christopher Ash, and beautifully lit by Greg Hoffman, Paramount’s season opener is a journey down memory lane. Stirring fond remembrances of the 70’s and reminding theatergoers of ABBA’s most infectious hits, it’s guaranteed that audiences will leave the theatre dancing and humming a grateful, “Thank You for the Music.”
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented September 9-October 30 by the Paramount Theatre, 23 E. Galena Blvd., Aurora, IL.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 630-896-6666 or by going to www.paramountaurora.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com