By Barry Reszel
Mamma Mia! Here we go again.
Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that.
Except that this terrific Drury Lane offering is staged just two years after back-to-back productions at Paramount and Marriott. So it’s certainly fair to remind the artistic powers that be of Chicagoland’s stellar large regional theatres that a healthy contingent of their patrons are a bunch of super troupers. Plenty of Drury’s subscribers head to Aurora, Lincolnshire and Munster, IN’s Theatre at the Center; just as their subscribers are thrilled to spend a lovely evening in Oakbrook Terrace. That’s why the nudge here (and not just to the braintrust at Drury Lane) is to think a little more macro when setting seasons next.
It’s obvious that a third major production of Mamma Mia! in just more than two years is really a testament to the title’s cult following. After all, we’re not talking Les Misérables here. This is a story about a group of Americans, a Brit and a Aussie on a remote Greek island unsuspectingly bursting into Swedish-inspired song. It includes some head-scratching lyrics shoehorned into an unsophisticated plot about a young girl seeking her identity before her wedding.
Yes, that’s the cynical synopsis.
To be fair, Mamma Mia! has more than its fair share of rabid fans, some of whom will travel great distance to see any professional production like an Iowa Hawkeyes football fan to the sideline of of a Dec. 28 bowl game in a God-forsaken Texas town. And the musical’s commercial success is undeniable. Mamma Mia‘s Broadway production finally closed in 2017 after a staggering 5,773 performances that began back in the fall of 2001, following a triumphant tryout at Chicago’s Cadillac Palace. It was Broadway’s eighth longest run. The stage production spawned a 2008 movie starring Meryl Streep and Amanda Seyfried, which was popular enough to propagate a 10-year reunion sequel in the summer of 2018 (Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again) that garnered enough funding to bring back Streep and induce Cher to join its cast.
Mamma Mia! is perhaps the quintessential, upbeat jukebox musical. It was created to showcase the Swedish group ABBA’s greatest hits, (music and lyrics by Benny Anderson and Bjorn Ulvacus) with a songbook including such well-known songs as “Super Trouper’” “Lay All Your Love on Me,” “Dancing Queen,” “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” “Take a Chance on Me,” “Thank You for the Music,” “Money, Money, Money,” “The Winner Takes It All,” “Voulez-Vous,” “SOS” and, of course, the title track. Book writer Catherine Johnson‘s effort to jam more than 25 pop songs into a storyline is near heroic. And while comical and engaging, the plot is accurately described as a tunefully expanded Maury Povich episode (“Annnd YOU are the father!”)
Mamma Mia! shares the mother-daughter relationship story of independent single mom Donna and her 20-year-old daughter, Sophie, on the eve of Sophie’s wedding to Sky. Donna has been raising Sophie alone on an idyllic Greek island and invited her two best friends and former singing partners to her daughter’s wedding. Sophie, on a quest to find the identity of her father to walk her down the aisle, read Donna’s diary from a lustful summer 21 years prior and invites her three possible dads to attend as well, believing she would know which is her biological father upon seeing him. The musical takes place over the ensuing 24 chaotic hours as new love blooms and old flames are rekindled on this lush island full of possibilities. (A more detailed synopsis and full production history may be read here.)
Drury’s Director William Osetek brings together an electric cast of Chicago’s favorite stage veterans along with an array of newcomers. It’s a Chicagoland casting decision represented by the show’s two leads, mother and daughter, Donna and Sophie Sheridan, played respectively by regional favorite Susie McMonagle and lovely newcomer Rebecca Hurd. While the ensemble sings the heck out of the tuneful songbook (thanks to Music Director Roberta Duchkek) and flippers their way through some fun choreography by Jane Lanier, this show belongs to these two leading ladies.
It’s simply been too long since patrons have seen McMonagle in a leading role on a major stage here. Remembered lovingly for her most recent Drury Lane star performances as Diana Goodman in Next to Normal and Mrs. Wilkinson in Billy Elliot, it’s clear she embraces this role in her return to it after playing Donna in the National Tour. This magnificent actress belts and croons with gorgeous versatility and leads the exhausting dance moves being bust, mostly by hoofers a generation younger.
Speaking of…if this production is McMonagle’s “Welcome back!” it’s Hurd’s “Where have you been?” With a BFA from the Univesity of Minnesota/Guthrie Theate and an acting resume that includes Writers Theatre (The Importance of Being Earnest), the Goodman Theatre (Enemy of the People) and Chicago Shakes, she brings to Sophie both the angelic singing voice and lovely innocence this role demands.
Other significant characterizations eminently worthy of note include: Donna’s pal duo (Elizabeth Ledo as Rosie and McKinley Carter as Tanya); her flings from 21 summers past (Michael Accardo as Bill Austin, Stef Tovar as Harry Bright and Jeff Parker as Sam Carmichael); Sophie’s best friends (Katherine Lee Bourné as Lisa and Sierra Schnack as Ali); and Sophie’s fiancé Sky (Liam Quealy). The entire cast is adorned colorfully by Marianne Custer, complementing the sunshiny, functional set by Jeffrey D. Kmiec.
If there’s a something additional to look for over the length of this production’s run, it’s even greater dynamism from the trio that is Donna and the Dynamos. A takeaway from Mamma Mia! productions past is the true women’s empowerment message (ultimately received by Sophie) that comes through the bond of these three longtime friends. It’s extraordinarily believable when they sing (and oh, do they sing) but can be further enhanced as the bond among these talented actresses strengthens.
All said, while Chicagoland probably doesn’t need a production of Mamma Mia! right now, Drury Lane’s high-quality, professional work will satisfy all the Mamma faithful. The rest of us, perhaps simply needing a sun-soaked escape from this dreadful winter, can smile and say, “Thank You For the Music.”
Drury Lane Theatre presents “Mamma Mia!” through April 14 at 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace. More information and tickets are available here. Photos by Brett Beiner.