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Mamma Mia is still a tough act to follow

Chris Jones

Chicago Tribune


I’ve seen the same production of “Mamma Mia!” nine times—twice in London, once on Broadway, once in Las Vegas, once in some unspeakably dull town somewhere and four times in Chicago. You might say I know the story, Chiquitita.

Heck, I could recite every costume change. You don’t mess with a hit of this magnitude and this Abba-rama jukebox ain’t changed one iota in the last decade. (Well, the cool bridge in the last scene went away).

So, faced with more spandex and yet another “Waterloo,” I was passing a little expositional downtime Wednesday night staring at the composers’ names emblazoned alongside the Auditorium Theatre’s burnished proscenium: Beethoven. Berloiz. Bjorn. Benny. At least I think that’s what it said. But then “Mamma Mia!” uses smoke effects.

So whaddaya wanna know, Fernando?

Why is “Mamma Mia” such a proven hit? It’s a charming, clever piece of writing that doesn’t take it itself too seriously, contains empathetic characters, has a genuine mystery that draws in the viewer and offers both a enjoyable new context for nostalgic ditties of the disco era and yet closely replicates their original musical arrangements, thus releasing sense memory of enjoyably bad 1970s behavior.

Nobody else has been able to replicate the formula, although hundreds of shows have tried. Benny (Andersson) and Bjorn (Ulvaeus) were masters of the melodic hook, even if some of their lyrics obsessed about weird things. Smart, then, to keep the dazzling tunes and gently spoof the words.

Does it still play? Well, nothing can ever compare for me to that first night in London all those years ago when the audience was engulfed in a wave of incomparable euphoria. After the movie and all those tours, people now know what’s coming. And although the sound mix is much, much better than recent touring shows to come through this theater, I wouldn’t call the Auditorium a natural party house.

But darn yes, it still plays. It’s a terrific escapist entertainment. And no week is better for “Mamma Mia” than a week when your 401(K) lies in tatters. You could stay home and cry or sing along with “Money, Money, Money,” silently pondering the irony of the moment, even as your free-spending date (or kids) whoop it up next to you. Go for it.

How is this cast? Terrific. Much fresher than most. Susie McMonagle, the local hero in the lead role of Donna, is warm, soft and emotionally rooted in the role. Her gorgeous voice has never sounded better. Rose Sezniak is a sweet, collegiate-like Sophie with perfectly apt pipes. The female foils—Michelle Elizabeth Dawson and Kittra Wynn Coomer (the names get longer with every tour)—are knockouts. The father-dudes are good too, with Chicago’s ebullient Michael Lindner leading the way.

Is the show better than the movie? “Mamma Mia” is a live experience. Period.