“IS THERE A MAN OUT THERE?”
For those of us of a certain age, the Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus music at the core of the ABBA musical phenomenon “Mamma Mia!” is inextricably seared in our consciousness–a critical part of what we were to become in the late ’70s and ’80s. You only had to hear the opening chords of “Dancing Queen” and your hands begin to curl up in anticipation of the piano air quotes that follow. And then there is the image of all those gleeful revelers singing “Super Trooper” into a beer bottle. Those were the days!
It was not so much a stroke of genius as a shrewd business decision by producers and a creative team that includes Andersson, Ulvaeus and playwright Catherine Johnson to fuse hits from the famous ABBA songbook into a 1999 jukebox musical that opened in London’s West End, then moved on to Toronto, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago before arriving at Broadway’s Winter Garden Theatre.
All of the pre-Broadway runs took place before 9/11, with the Chicago try-out closing in mid-August 2001, causing the “Mamma Mia!” Broadway debut to be swept up in the grim aftermath and unfathomable grief of a city struggling day-to-day to recover. I recall the preview performance I saw in early October 2001 as transformative; past and present suddenly merging, familiar tunes erupting out of the story, bursting together with brilliant and heartfelt memories. I realize now that the show cracked open the caged emotions of that September and light started to seep in. In the face of the reality of those dark days and weeks, the music of “Mamma Mia!” was, and has always been, an escape route.
Surely all jukebox musicals are forever locked into their own specific time and place. Uniquely, “Mamma Mia!”—a fine production of which you can now enjoy at Drury Lane—is set on a remote tropical-island paradise off Greece, which results in its music being the defining anchor, with the spandex and sequins of the era links in the chain. It is an evergreen tale of pop culture, virtually impossible to meddle with unless you want to risk offending any of the estimated 60 million fans of countless national and international productions who know–and love–what comes next.
One of those national tours starred Chicagoan Susie McMonagle, who has returned to Drury Lane in an electrifying performance as Donna, the mom whose three summertime flings produced a daughter, Sophie, played by the equally remarkable Rebecca Hurd. The setup, of course, is that 20 years have passed, Sophie is getting married to Sky (Liam Quealy), and she decides to invite the three lovers from her mom’s (“Dot, dot, dot.”) diary—Sam (Jeff Parker), Harry (Stef Tovar) and Bill (Michael Accardo)—to the wedding. On the way to sorting out who her real father might be, Sophie learns a thing or two about life, love and making dreams come true from Donna’s two swinging pals, Tanya (McKinley Carter) and Rosie (Elizabeth Ledo), dominated by one of ABBA’s iconic musical messages, “Is there a man out there?”
Director William Osetek, music director Roberta Duchak and conductor Christopher Sargent tap an energized and enthusiastic Chicago ensemble from top to bottom. McMonagle’s “Winner Takes It All” is a showstopper, and with all of ABBA’s well known pop-rock ballads and driving dance numbers, choreographed by Jane Lanier on the Jeffrey D. Kmiec set, “Mamma Mia!” has everything you could hope for—a glittering night of musical magic to experience again and again.
DRURY LANE THEATRE
through April 14th
100 Drury Lane
Oakbrook Terrace, IL