This Winner Takes It All
Rachel Rockwell’s fresh and exciting new production of the smash hit musical, which became a cult classic for Baby Boomers almost twenty years ago, is actually one of Broadway’s first juke box musicals. Taken from the ABBA songbook, Marriott’s stage version erases the memories of the rather disappointing film version. Here’s a wonderful opportunity to enjoy a polished, professional production of how that musical is suppose to look and sound. And this production is not only pitch perfect but, clad in spandex, platform heels and glitter, it’s a feast for the eyes, as well.
For the handful of theatergoers unfamiliar with this show, the story revolves around Sophie, a young bride-to-be, who wants to know the identity of her father so he can give her away at the wedding. Sophie’s secretly found her mom’s diary and, after reading about Donna’s romantic exploits as a younger woman, she’s narrowed down the search to three possible dads. She’s secretly invited each of them to the ceremony on the Grecian island where Sophie and her mother Donna live. The rest of the flimsy plot, which seems to be just a clever device to connect ABBA’s greatest hits into some kind of story, centers around the mystery of who is the real father. However, being honest, most audiences don’t attend this musical for its story, but rather to relive that glitzy disco era evoked by ABBA’s songs.
One of Chicago’s most talented leading ladies, Danni Smith (Aldonza in Marriott’s recent “Man of La Mancha”), radiates her sparkling warmth and star quality in the leading role of Donna Sheridan. Ms. Smith, who has an exquisitely beautiful singing voice, is simply perfection. Whether belting out an uptempo dance hit or crooning one of ABBA’s lush, torchy ballads, Danni Smith is effortless, whether acting, singing or dancing. It’s almost as if the role had been created just for her. Her touching duet with Sophie, “Slipping Through My Fingers,” as well as Ms. Smith’s gorgeous performance of “The Winner Takes it All” are especially moving, as the actress takes us on an emotional, pop musical journey.
Teamed with the excellent Cassie Slater, as Rosie, and the tantalizing Meghan Murphy, as Tanya, these three divas tear up the stage as Donna’s old friends and former singing partners. They soar through pop hits like “Money, Money, Money,” “Chiquitita,” “Super Trooper,” “Waterloo” the contagious “Dancing Queen” and, of course, the title song, “Mamma Mia.” Ms. Slater lays it all on the line with “Take a Chance on Me,” sung with the very funny Derek Hasenstab, as Bill. Ms. Murphy heats up the stage with Liam Quealy, as Pepper, performing a sultry “Does Your Mother Know?” The ladies bring the audience to their feet, heads bopping up and down, hands clapping and bodies swaying, in everything they sing.
This production has an exceptional talent in young Tiffany Tatreau, as Sophie Sheridan, Donna’s 20-year-old daughter. She’s about to tie the knot with her handsome young boyfriend, Sky, played with charm and chivalry by Russell Mernagh. This gifted young lady lends a sincerity and freshness to the role which makes us truly care about her. And, as demonstrated in Marriott’s “Sister Act” and CST’s “Ride the Cyclone,” this actress can sing and dance with the best of them. And she just happens to be joined by the best of them, a terrifically talented supporting ensemble who don’t hold back one iota, as they execute Erica Mac’s wild and wonderful choreography. As Sophie’s three prospective fathers, Karl Hamilton, Derek Hasenstab and dashing Chicago newcomer, Peter Saide, provide strong foils for the three women, each showcasing his individual vocal and comedy chops, as well.
Scott Davis has scenically designed this in-the-round production, which includes an island surrounded by a moat of real water. He’s surrounded the audience in primitive, sun-bleached Greek homes, dotted with practical, louvered windows, which allow the chorus to pop out during some of the production numbers. Jesse Klug’s stunning lighting design mixes floral festoons of colored illumination with revolving concert lighting. Theresa Ham has designed a wardrobe for her cast that’s at once colorful, flattering and pays homage to the glitter and spandex of the disco era.
Stirring up fond memories of those mirrorballed 1970’s and 80’s, and filling the audience’s head with over two dozen infectious ABBA’s hits, Rachel Rockwell has created a much-welcomed, fresh, lively new interpretation of a musical whose chief weakness is often its story. Ryan T. Nelson has skillfully guided his cast through all the catchy pop songs, nicely accompanied by Patti Garwood’s eight-member band. With hits like “The Name of the Game,” “Under Attack,” “S.O.S.,” “Knowing Me, Knowing You” and the haunting melody that opens and closes the show, “I Have a Dream,” it’s guaranteed that audiences will leave the theatre humming a grateful, “Thank You for the Music.