F-ABBA-Licious!: 'Mamma Mia!' at The Marriott Theatre
Grab your bell bottoms, platform shoes and spandex (if you are really daring) and get ready for the disco inferno. It may have been chance or a calculated programming choice that brought the music of 1970s sensations ABBA and The Bee Gees back to suburban Chicago area stages simultaneously. But then “Mamma Mia!” has become a semi-annual standard here ever since taking its pre-Broadway bows in 2001 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre. And if it is a groovy feel-good disco party you seek, The Marriott Theatre’s latest revival is sure to pump the adrenaline back into your boogey shoes.
The Marriott consistently draws upon the most stellar A-list of talent, none more impressive than its current director Rachel Rockwell. If you have been around Chicago musical theatre anytime over the past two decades you will surely have crossed paths with this ABBA-solutely amazing artist whose talents and creative vision know no peer. Ms. Rockwell is also a vet performer of the Broadway company of “Mamma Mia!” so she’s already got the blueprint down pat.
Catherine Johnson’s book has never been more than a workable paint-by-numbers framework to tie the greatest hits of the Swedish pop band ABBA together in one shiny, shimmering package. But since those songs by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus are so delicious who’s to quibble? 20-year-old Sophie is getting married and wants her dad to give her away. But which one will it be? There are three possible “dads” from her free-spirited and independent mother Donna’s past, all converging on their magical little Greek island love nest at once. Paternity test, you ask? Of course, that would make for a dreadfully short show, which is just as much a celebration of friendship, romance and girl power as it is about family values. And how could we resist ya an all-inclusive sentimental wrap-up and the requisite mega-mix finale that finally gives the audience a reason to jump to their feet and join in the merriment.
The already thin plot scenario is skewered even further in this production because the central mother-daughter relationship is unconvincing. Demure Danni Smith (Donna) and pixyish Tiffany Tatreau (Sophie) are both beautiful singers, and Smith brings down the house with her big ballad “The Winner Takes it All” that literally takes no prisoners. But aside from her powerhouse vocal prowess this Donna Sheridan fades into the background, showing none of the fierce force of nature her character is meant to be. Tatreau plays Sophie sweet but little more, shifting focus to the far more interesting supporting cast.
The dazzling red-hot Meghan Murphy all but obliterates everyone else when she is onstage as Donna’s gal pal and three-time divorcee Tanya. This diva rules, hitting “Does Your Mother Know” out of the ball park and down the block, and putting the age-old debate of “Mary Ann or Ginger?” to rest forever. I also want to give a shout out to the adorable Lillian Castilo, who makes all of her too-few moments onstage sparkle as Sophie’s underwritten friend Lisa.
Each of Sophie’s “dads” (Peter Saide, Karl Hamilton and Derek Hasenstab) add their own unique transcontinental layers, although the casting of several roles makes this production feel like an extremely glossy college production. Russell Mernagh (Sky) and Liam Quealy (Pepper) supply all the testosterone-coated eye candy one could dream of, and Quealy’s superb athleticism gets a real workout opposite Murphy’s red-hot momma. Having one of Sophie’s possible dads (the tall, handsome Saide) and fiancée (Mernagh) appear as if they could be frat buddies causes a slightly unintentional creep factor here as the lines between parent, child and lover are constantly blurred. This is one dysfunctional family no matter how you add it up.
But where it really counts, “Mamma Mia!” is a completely fun show. Choreographer Ericka Mac and Music Director Ryan T. Nelson see to it that every move and every note are total bliss. Patti Garwood conducts the Marriott’s eight-piece kick ass band, and they rock! Scott Davis’ clever environmental Mediterranean resort completely surrounds the audience and incorporates a real wading pool of water to complete the romantic mystique.
Following in the footsteps of the Marriott’s recently retired and beloved costume designer Nancy Missimi was certainly no small task, but Theresa Ham came through with flying colors, sequins and spandex to spare. Jesse Klug’s incredible lighting is so seductive and hypnotic it should carry its own PG-13 rating. Jukebox musicals like “Mamma Mia!” are almost impervious to review, because the audience loves them and they are so much fun that serious dramatic criticism becomes irrelevant. So “Mamma Mia!” here I go again for whatever it’s worth. And Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus: A heartfelt thank you for the music, the song I’m singing…thanks for all the joy you’re bringing!