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BWW Review: Paramount's MAMMA MIA! Happily Goes Again, Not Resisted

L to R: Kiersten Frumkin (Sophie); Ryan McBride (Sky):
Amy Montgomery (Donna); Jeff Diebold (Sam)

The unquestioned immortality of Mamma Mia! took a hit last year when its Broadway run came to an end after playing fourteen years, two theatres and 5,773 performances. Now comes the question of its unavoidability. Somehow, I've managed to - okay, maybe not avoid it, which implies snobbishness on my part - but Mamma Mia! has just never been on my radar. It'll be around forever - or at least as long as Boomer nostalgia sells - so that leaves plenty of time to catch up on other things, my thought process went. But now begins what will presumably turn into a licensing blitz, and Aurora's Paramount Theatre leads the bell-bottomed charge into Chicagoland. So here we go again for the first time, I guess.

I know the critical consensus of the musical itself and, after seeing it, I don't deviate from it: ABBA's songs are still irresistibly infectious; Catherine Johnson's book is still more Silly Putty than Greek limestone (now calcified into a period piece); and nothing anyone says or does can stop it.

L to R: Amy Montgomery (Donna);
Kiersten Frumkin (Sophie)

Okay, credit where credit is due: Johnson knows her old-school one-liners ("It's a horrible twist of fate!" "It's Greek!") and with the show brings a certain welcome sense of feminine sexual frankness. That frank, horrible, Greek twist of fate, of course, involves the impending wedding of Sophie (Kiersten Frumkin), who desperately wants her father to walk her down the aisle to give her away. ("I hope you heard that, because that's the plot," said a certain man in a chair during another musical about nuptials.) The only problem is she doesn't know who that man may be, owing to the wild-child days of her mother, former girl-group singer Donna (Amy Montgomery). She sends the three most likely candidates (Michael Gillis, Steve O'Connell, and Jeff Diebold) invitations to the wedding on the Greek island she and her mom call home; they arrive; Donna's old bandmates arrive; and twenty-four ABBA songs and/or hilarity ensues.

L to R: Kiersten Frumkin (Sophie);
Ryan McBride (Sky)

So that's the musical. How's the production?

If Mamma Mia!'s still needs crossing off your bucket list, Paramount's typically top-quality production is as good a place as any to do it.

The material pitches actors to go broad, and Jennifer Knox and Sara Sevigny as Donna's girl-group besties, as well as the prospective dads and requisite beefcakes, go really broad to precise effect. But director Jim Corti also goes for the realistic as far as the central mother-daughter dynamic is concerned. Sophie's exasperating flightiness - contrasted with Donna's rock-solid grip on independence - thus plays convincingly as the result of genuine emotional confusion and insecurity, rather than the book insecurity that it is. It also adds more drive to already driving songs like toward Montgomery's fierce knockout "Winner Takes It All." (The excellent music direction is by Tom Vendafreddo, and no easy enterprise, that, especially with electronic elements and extremely high harmonies.)

It's also impressive - gorgeous, even - to look at. Kevin Depinet only needs a stone doorway and a turntable (and a few dozen disco balls) to make an efficient yet artful point, and Christopher Ash's sky-blue panoramic projections complement the scenery wonderfully.

Which leaves William Carlos Angulo and Matt Guthier with the megamix - the fateful concluding megamix - as choreographer and costume designer, respectively. Often utilized in jukebox musicals since, but if the reaction at Paramount's production is any indication of previous ones, those two guys - and Mamma Mia! as a whole - get it very right. The problems of the world (or a Greek island) are untangled - and not with deus ex machinae here, but a sudden bold and somewhat touching personal revelation - the masks come off (and the spangled bell bottoms and fringe come on), and it's time to let loose, to revel in the hope that things can work themselves out for us, too. Also, those ABBA songs.

L to R: Amy Montgomery (Donna);
Jeff Diebold (Sam)

Okay, okay, I'll also admit that the script just works in its own way. A little too long, maybe - I can see abridged productions doing very well - but if you're going to cram twenty-four ABBA songs into one evening, Johnson has the sense to use a shoehorn, not a hatchet. I suppose it helps that Mamma Mia! isn't like most other jukebox musicals. in that its songsmiths weren't terribly involved with it, much less interested in using the musical as self-promotion, never mind self-hagiography, as some extreme cases go. Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus were apparently skeptical about using their songs as theatrical vehicles.

They've been international theatrical vehicles nearly twenty years now.

So yes, Mamma Mia! has its place, at the Paramount and in musical theater as a whole. It may find its place again in Chicagoland soon, but this one's money, money.

Mamma Mia! continues through October 30th. Show times are Wednesday at 1:30 p.m.
and 7 p.m.; Thursday at 7 p.m.; Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 1 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. Tickets are $44 to $59. For subscriptions, single tickets and information, go to, call (630) 896-6666, or visit the Paramount box office Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and two hours prior to evening performances. Mamma Mia! is rated PG.

Photo credit: Liz Lauren

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From This Author Patrick O'Brien

Patrick O’Brien is a multidisciplinary theater artist, with just the face for theatrical critique. BA Theatre Arts, Minor in Music, Millikin University '14. (read more...)

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