Before going on about the absolutely delicious production of “Mamma Mia!” that opened Saturday at Aurora’s Paramount Theatre — kicking off the fifth season of its Broadway Series, which has become a formidable proof of how a performing arts organization can become a city’s prime economic engine — it is worth considering the Chicago area’s musical theater scene at the moment. In a real sense it serves as a remarkable timeline of just how all-embracing the Broadway sound can be. It also suggests the formidable impact of competition.
At Lincolnshire’s Marriott Theatre you will now find a wonderfully fizzy take on “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” a Frank Loesser classic with a 1950s vibe and the sound of the Golden Age of Broadway. At the Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace you will discover a sublime version of “Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” with a Leiber and Stoller songbook that announces the arrival of rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm-and-blues of the late 1950s and 1960s. With “Mamma Mia!” comes the irresistible energy and wit of ABBA, that wildly successful Swedish pop band of the 1970s. And on Tuesday night, “In the Heights,” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first Latin-and hip-hop-infused musical, opens in a Porchlight Music Theatre production. Talk about an embarrassment of riches.
Paramount’s “Mamma Mia!” has been ideally directed by Jim Corti (whose storytelling and casting choices are invariably diamond-sharp), with exuberant choreography by William Carlos Angulo (whose work on Paramount’s ‘West Side Story” was so brilliant), lush musical direction by Tom Vendafreddo (leading a top-notch orchestra) and a richly evocative, Greek island-of-your-dreams revolving set by Kevin Depinet, animated by Christopher Ash’s Aegean Sea video projections. And it is a “honey” on every level.
Kiersten Frumkin plays the bride, Sophie; Ryan McBride is her groom, Sky, and Amy Montgomery is Sophie’s mother, Donna, in the Paramount Theatre production of “Mamma Mia!” (Photo: Liz Lauren)
Most notably, this is the first time this musical’s two dozen songs (many of the greatest hits penned by ABBA’s Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus) feel as if they were written specifically for the show, rather than simply being retrofitted with a wink-and-a-nod into Catherine Johnson’s carefully devised story. While never denying the songs’ infectious pop vibe, through some form of alchemy, Corti and his actors have managed to make the whole thing feel like a zestily contemporary Greek myth. (Even a one-liner about Oedipus manages to evoke laughter here.) And the sometimes abrupt endings so typical of pop songs are made to feel right here, underscoring the characters’ ambivalence about many of the dilemmas they face.
While the show’s title song evokes the story’s mother-daughter element, “Mamma Mia!” is very much the tale of a daughter in search of her father. Twenty-year-old Sophie Sheridan (lithe, blonde Kiersten Frumkin, who has the aura of a sea nymph) has has been raised by her single mother, Donna (a winningly real, power-voiced Amy Montgomery), owner of a taverna on a beautiful Greek island. Two decades earlier, in the late 1970s, Donna — an American girl in flight from her conservative Catholic upbringing, and determined to lead a liberated life — traveled through Europe with her pals Tanya (sexy Jennifer Knox, a terrific dancer, as the woman who moved on to marry and divorce many rich men) and Rosie (Sara Sevigny, hilarious as the live-free-or-die feminist now in search of romance). And they performed as a free-spirited all-girls rock band called Donna and the Dynamos.
‘MAMMA MIA!’ Highly recommended When: Through Oct. 30 Where: Paramount Theatre, 23 E. Galena Blvd., Aurora Tickets: $44 – $59 Info: (630) 896-6666; wwww.paramountaurora.com Run time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission
During a particularly steamy summer, Donna had affairs with three men, as subtly recorded in the diary found by Sophie. They included: Sam Carmichael (Jeff Diebold), an architect with responsibilities back in the U.S.; Bill Austin (Steve O’Connell), now a decidedly eccentric travel writer, and Englishman Harry Bright, now a wealthy banker. (All three actors play their roles to perfection, as does Aaron Patrick Craven as Pepper, the stud in pursuit of Tanya, a classic cougar).
Donna soon found herself pregnant, and decided to stay in Greece. Perhaps not sure just who Sophie’s father actually was, she never discussed the matter with her daughter. But now, as Sophie’s wedding to Sky (Ryan McBride) approaches, the girl wants to nail down her identity and be “given away” by her father. So, without her mother’s knowledge, she has invited all three men back to the island. Not surprisingly, their arrival triggers great emotional chaos.
Corti’s cast (with diction that is uniformly impeccable) turns each song into a scene. And what great songs these are, especially as put “in context” here: From “Money, Money, Money,” with its Fosse-esque choreography about the oppressive nature of those green paper bills, to the celebratory “Dancing Queen,” to “The Name of the Game,” a fervent confessional shared by Sophie and Bill, to the marine nightmare “Under Attack” (with scuba divers in eerily lit googles) to Donna’s pained and bitter “The Winner Takes It All” (vividly sung by Montgomery).
And that is just a small suggestion of the many big numbers, including a glittery finale (cheers for Matt Guthier’s splendiferous costumes) that has the audience on its feet and dancing. How could it be any other way?