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Rockwell puts masterful touch on favorite women’s relationship musical ‘Mamma Mia!’ at Marriott

Pretty much everything Rachel Rockwell touches with her deft direction turns to gold. So what happens when the multi-Jeff Award winner is asked to tackle ABBA Gold?

...Rockwell’s new, exciting production of Mamma Mia! at Lincolnshire’s Marriott Theatre is a splendidly raucous celebration of women’s key life relationships (mothers, daughters and BFFs). Timely to say the least, though the musical has been performing seemingly everywhere since it opened in London’s West End in 1999, and there are at least seven productions of the show performed daily around the world.

Rockwell has a special place in her heart for this show. She made her Broadway stage debut in Mamma Mia! before leading its second national tour as dance captain. “I’m really excited to put my spin on this exuberant celebration of music and friendship,” she said.

The music and lyrics by Benny Anderson and Bjorn Ulvacus make up the Swedish group ABBA’s greatest hits, almost begging show patrons to shut up and dance with the cast. They include 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.

It’s the unabashed “leave it all on the stage” approach shared among Rockwell’s amazingly talented cast, along with their combined vocal richness, that are this production’s greatest take-aways. Book writer Catherine Johnson‘s effort to shoehorn more than 25 pop songs into a storyline is near heroic. But while entertaining, 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.

Rockwell recently told a reporter, “I love how rich (the show) is chorally. The harmonies are amazing and they use voices as instruments so beautifully so it has an orchestral feel almost.”

It’s this focus that comes through loud and clear. Enhanced by Scott Davis‘ lovely, exotic true-island set; Theresa Ham‘s gorgeous (sometimes wacky) costumes; and Ericka Mac‘s fun, athletic, high-spirited and perfectly executed choreography (imagine tapping in scuba flippers), this show is ultimately about the music.

Ryan T. Nelson‘s wonderful music direction features an eight-member pit, conducted by Patti Garwood. But as Rockwell points out, the lush harmonies throughout the songbook and use of cast voices onstage, backstage and popping through shuttered windows of the tropical paradise in nearly every number work to make the music soar.

And then there are her perfectly cast leads.

Danni Smith is a powerful Chicagoland stage goddess who hasn’t found a role or a song she can’t attack. Her Donna is not simply Sophie’s mother in this cast. In many ways she’s the dominating force in the lives of every single character in the show, and audience members never doubt for a second that they are all better off for it. Vocally, Smith is the centerpiece of the production, and this reviewer is particularly fond of these contributions: “Mamma Mia,” Dancing Queen,” Our Last Summer” and “The Winner Takes It All.”

Tiffany Tatreau, who slayed last year’s Marriott Sister Act performance (Mary Robert), is a sweet, smart, believable Sophie who manages her relationships well, despite her young age. It’s a testament to this young actor’s ability that she shows her character’s strength is derived from her mom. On top of that, her singing voice is lovely and dance moves acrobatic. “Under Attack,” the opening of Act 2, is a powerful highlight in every way, both for Tatreau and the entire stellar ensemble.

Meghan Murphy, who puts the B in bawdy and owns the room, is an absolute knockout as Donna’s BFF Tanya, while fellow “Donna and the Dynamos” member, the earthy Rosie, is perfectly played by Cassie Slater. Her “Take a Chance on Me” duet with 1/3 dad Bill is among the best comic moments of the production. Special mentions, too, to Lillian Castillo and Kayla Kennedy for their always-on portrayals of Sophie’s pals Lisa and Ali.

As for the men, Peter Saide as Sam, Derek Hasenstab as Bill and Karl Hamilton as Harry are excellent 1/3 dads, and Russell Mernagh is terrific as in-love, young 20s surfer dude Sky. While their roles are are necessary…

This show is really about the women.

So I say
Thank you for the music, the songs I’m singing
Thanks for all the joy they’re bringing
Who can live without it, I ask in all honesty
What would life be?
Without a song or a dance what are we?
So I say thank you for the music
For giving it to me

Now get out to Lincolnshire and dance.