Drury Lane Theatre

Mamma Mia!

At the Drury Lane Theatre

By Dan Zeff

Oakbrook Terrace –Give Drury Lane Theatre artistic director William Osetek credit. Recognizing the mass audience appeal of “Mamma Mia!” he could have scheduled a safe production of the musical and allow the familiar score to carry the show. But Osetek assembled a terrific performing ensemble and a group of creative designers to take a fresh look at the international hit. The result is a staging so vibrant and creative that it makes this “Mamma Mia!” a virtually new entertainment experience. No matter how many times you have seen this show, you need to see the Drury Lane version.

The Drury Lane revival has not tampered with the original “Mamma Mia!” superstructure. The setting is still a Greek island circa 1960. An American woman named Donna Sheridan runs a struggling resort on the island while raising her daughter Sophie. The daughter is the out of wedlock result of a liaison with one of three candidates on the island 21 years earlier. Sophie’s father is either American Sam Carmichael, Englishman Harry Bright, or Australian Bill Austin.

Sophie learns of the three lovers from Donna’s pilfered diary. The girl is about to be married on the island to a young man named Sky and she aches to know the identity of her real father. So, without her mother’s knowledge or permission, she mails invitations to each man, hoping to discover who her real dad is. The bulk of the musical deals with the interaction between Donna and the three men who had brief affairs with her 21 years earlier.

            Photo Credit – Brett Beiner

The show is built around the music of the popular Scandinavian singing group ABBA. The score consists of about two dozen ABBA hits composed in the 1970’s by the group’s male members, Benny Anderson and Bjorn Ulvaeus. The songs were recorded individually by Andersson, Ulvaeus, and the group’s two female vocalists, Agnetha Faitskog and Frida Lynsgard and made them superstars.

ABBA disbanded in the 1980’s but Andersson and Ulvaeus came up with the idea of a musical showcasing the group’s music. The men got together with English playwright Catherine Johnson, who cobbled together the Greek island storyline to enclose the songs. The show became an instant sensation, duplicated by its opening on Broadway in 2001. The show has been a staple of touring companies and regional theaters in the United States and it has become a ritual for audiences to dance in the aisles at the during the show’s finale, “Dancing Queen.”

I’ve seen a half dozen previous “Mamma Mia!”productions, all of them good but none as good as the current staging at Drury Lane. The show has fallen under the patronizing rubric of “jukebox musical” but it actually brings considerable merit to the table. Johnson’s book provides a coherent narrative for the stand-alone songs and, of course, there are all those infectious ABBA songs. But Osetek’s directing has elevated the music and book into a believable organic whole. A viewer seeing the show for the first time would never suspect that “Mamma Mia!” has been an artificial union of songs and a storyline developed decades apart.

The Drury Lane show works so well because it is acted with such credibility by a large cast of more than two dozen performers who are not only uniformly good but obviously love their work. Their enthusiasm communicates itself readily to the viewer. If I were performing in this production, I would run to the theater every performance.

The cast is led by Susie McMonagle, one of the local musical theater’s leading divas, as Donna Sheridan. McMonagle adds layers of depth to the character of a tough-minded woman determined to go it alone in a time when independent females had tough sledding. McMonagle delivers a passionate heart-on-the-sleeve rendering of “The Winner Takes It All” that was a show stopper in an evening of show stoppers. Throughout the show, McMonagle asserts a sympathetic human element into a narrative that otherwise is heavy on light, two dimensional characters.

          Photo Credit – Brett Beiner

The three would-be fathers are played by Jeff Parker (Sam Carmichael), Michael Accardo (Bill Austin), and Stef Tovar (Harry Bright). All three play their roles with a realism that happily sidesteps the comic plot-point function of their characters. And they each have commendable singing voices, a quality too often absent in “Mamma Mia!” revivals.Rebecca Hurd makes an intelligent mature Sophie with a solid voice.   As Rosie, one of Donna’s sidekicks from her younger days, Elizabeth Ledo brings a wry, saucy flair to a figure normally played as a humorous cartoon figure. Ledo’s version of “Take a Chance on Me” delightfully reinvents the song as a seductive hit on Bill Austin and knocked the audience out.

“Mamma Mia!” has always been something of a dancing show, but Jane Lanier’s exciting disco-rich choreography exceeds any dancing I’ve seen in previous productions with its ensemble athleticism, high spirits, and precision. The females in the chorus are not only talented, they are stunners looks-wise. And props to the swinging electrified pit orchestra directed by Christopher Sargent (Roberta Duchak is the music director).

The design team takes creative advantage of the Drury Lane’s large playing area and backstage technology to assemble a colorful, atmospheric physical look. Jeffrey Kmiec designed the sets, Marianne Custer the period costumes, Lee Fiskness the lighting, and Ray Nardelli the sound. They have combined their skills to bring the show visually and aurally alive.

The opening night atmosphere at Drury Lane was heavy with anticipation, especially from the many younger viewers, and you could feel the buzz in the house even before the show began. Once the overture ended, it didn’t take long for the keyed-up crowd to recognize that their eagerness would be rewarded with an extra special presentation. And so they were.

The show gets a rating of 

“Mamma Mia!” runs through April 14 at the Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane. Performances are Wednesday at 1:30 p.m., Thursday at 1:30 and 8 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 5 and 8:30 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 6 p.m. Tickets are $55 to $70. Call 630 530 0111 or visit DruryLaneTheatre.com.

Contact Dan at:ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com                         February 2019

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