At the Rosemont Theatre
By Dan Zeff
ROSEMONT—“Mamma Mia!” is back in the Chicagoland area for the umpteenth time and one wonders why it ever left in the first place. This irresistible show obviously has a vast fan base happy to see the musical again and again. Why not find a theater and keep it around for years?
The latest “Mamma Mia!” sighting is at the Rosemont Theatre, where the show is in residence for a paltry one week. It isn’t a perfect production, but there is enough talent on stage to allow the show’s high spirits and the radiant ABBA songs to shine through.
“Mamma Mia!” is the gold standard of jukebox musicals. The creators started with about two dozen songs made famous by the Swedish rock group ABBA in the 1970’s and early 1980’s and stitched them together into a cheerful romantic vehicle about a mother and daughter living on a Greek island. Daughter Sophie is getting married to Sky and wants to know the identity of her father, one of three men that mother Donna had quickie affairs with 21 years earlier. So she invites all three to the nuptials, without her mother’s knowledge. The customary complications and confrontations ensue, ending in the expected cheerful resolution, and everyone exits the theater with “Dancing Queen” and “Waterloo” ringing in their ears.
The current production is touring the country and it has some problems. There is far too much broad comedy, most of it instigated by Tanya and Rosie, Donna’s two lady friends come to the island for Sophie’s wedding. “Mamma Mia!” has its share of humor, but it isn’t supposed to be a laugh riot, and there are an excessive number of attempts to extract easy giggles from the audience through mugging and coarse low comedy shtick. The original director needs to look at this production and rein in the burlesque elements.
The casting is mostly sufficient, but the actress playing Sophie lacks dramatic heft, diminishing the many conflicts the young lady has with her mother, her boy friend, and her three possible fathers that provide the spine of the narrative. The performer also was the major victim of some sound imbalances between the pit orchestra and the singers. Too often the band drowned out the girl, though this purely technical difficulty may be resolved as the run proceeds.
The Rosemont Theatre is not a happy home for shows like “Mamma Mia!” It’s a vast and cold venue with all the intimacy of the Carlsbad Caverns. A smaller and more hospitable theater would have accentuated the show’s many charms.
Having said all that, “Mamma Mia!” is still one of the great joys in the modern musical theater. It’s been fashionable to take pot shots at the show for its disco ambience, just as some people loved to ridicule “Cats” when it was drawing sell-out crowds by the year. Well, we live in a free country with freedom of speech, so people can mock “Mamma Mia!” at their pleasure, but they are blocking themselves off from 21/2 hours of real pleasure.
The hero of the show is book author Catherine Johnson. She has written a story and dialogue that fit the Benny Andersson-Bjorn Ulvaeus songs so seamlessly the unaware spectator might think the score and book were crafted at the same time. Songs like “Money, Money, Money,” “The Name of the Game,” “The Winner Takes It All,” and “S.O.S.” are embedded in the action like they were composed specifically for the show.
The touring production still focuses on the revolving monolith that serves as the all-purpose set for the action. There are 30 people in the cast, so this isn’t a cut-rate staging. The chorus executes Anthony Van Laast’s rousing choreography with high energy and genuine enthusiasm. Michelle Dawson is fine as Donna, especially when she is away from the antics of her two girl friends. As the three possible fathers, John Hemphill, Martin Kildare, and Chicago stage veteran Michael Aaron Lindner provide the best acting of the night.
The large opening night audience clearly came to have fun, and have fun they did, right through the extended musical curtain call. A cigar store wooden Indian would jive in the aisles to the final reprise of “Dancing Queen.” This may be the last visiting production of “Mamma Mia!” before the show is ultimately turned over to local theaters. I can’t wait for the Marriott Theatre and Drury Lane Oakbrook to take their shot at this delectable musical.
“Mamma Mia!“ runs through Sunday at the Rosemont Theatre, 5400 North River Road. Tickets are $30 to $80. Call 800 775 2000 or visit www.ticketmaster.com.
The production gets a rating of three stars. January 2010
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At the Rosemont Theatre
By Dan Zeff
ROSEMONT—‘”Movin’ Out” is two terrific halves of a musical that don’t add up to a perfect whole. The show is a superb dance evening conceived and choreographed by Twyla Tharp, who also directs. And it’s also a great rock concert that explores the songs of Billy Joel—about two dozen of them, including the familiar “Just the Way You Are,” “For the Longest Time,” “Uptown Girl,” and “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”
The problem with “Movin’ Out” has always been the difficulty of making sense out of the story. The show originated at a pre Broadway run in Chicago in 2002 and got negative reviews because the narrative was virtually incomprehensible. Tharp tweaked the show before its New York opening and the result was a hit that ran for more than three years. The road company played in Chicago a few seasons ago and the improvement was obvious, and welcome.
“Movin’ Out” returned to Chicagoland for a brief five-performance run at the Rosemont Theatre over the past weekend. The storytelling problems still haven’t been entirely resolved but the Billy Joel music and the Tharp choreography easily carried the show.
“Movin’ Out” is a kind of “Mamma Mia!” with a sense of serious purpose. The creators took a selection of independently composed Billy Joel songs and assembled them into what attempted to be a coherent narrative. The show relies entirely on dance and music. There is no spoken dialogue. The playbill carries a brief synopsis of the story that is helpful but ultimately inadequate to the viewer as the 24 scenes unfold over two acts.
“Basically,”Movin’ Out” deals with the impact of the Vietnam War on a group of young men and women on Long Island during the 1960’s. The core characters are a pair of couples, Brenda and Eddie and Judy and James. Both men and their friend Tony go off to war but only Eddie and Tony return.
The first act contains most of the Billy Joel hit songs but the storyline remains elusive. The second act raises the show’s emotional temperature enormously and the dancing ascends to an exhilarating, and dramatic level. Much of the second act portrays the burnout suffered by the young men who returned from Vietnam, burdened by guilt at what they saw and did in the war and haunted by nightmares of the violence.
The staging is simple but effective. A rock band performs on a platform that overhangs the rear of the stage. A pianist/vocalist sings all the songs, an exhausting role that requires three men to rotate from show to show. Kyle Martin occupied the piano/singer chair on Friday night, belting out the songs very much in the Billy Joel vocal style. His backup band was outstanding, especially tenor saxophonist John Summers.
Aside from a few props and some vivid lighting effects, the show visually belongs to the 14-member ensemble. On Friday night, the key roles were danced by Lawrence Neuhauser (Eddie), Ashlee DuPre (Brenda), Adam Dulin-Tavares (Tony), Stacey L. Harris (Judy), and Gregory DeSantis (James). Neuhauser had the showiest role and he was terrific in his expressive athleticism and energy. DuPre and Harris carried the female dancing assignments with splendid technique melded with a high quotient of emotion. The ensemble, several of whom take featured roles during the tour, were all first rate.
The choreography was a mixture of ballet, Broadway, jazz, and, well, Twyla Tharp. The cast’s motor never stopped racing and the ensemble scenes in the second act were both gripping in mood and buoyant in execution.
After a shaky early history, “Movin’ Out” turned out to be one of the significant musicals of the early 2000’s. Given the specialized and demanding nature of the show, we may never see a Broadway caliber production like this again, so the fortunate people who attended one of the weekend performances enjoyed a theatrical and dramatic experience that may never be duplicated.
the audience didn’t treasure was the jaw-dropping $20 fee to park in the
Rosemont Theatre lot, and it was cash only. February 2009
The Radio City Christmas Spectacular
at the Rosemont Theatre
By Dan Zeff
ROSEMONT—The Radio City Christmas Spectacular is back at the Rosemont Theatre for its ninth visit, with all its abundant glories and a small number of defects. Regreattably, the show won’t be around for the Christmas season, closing almost a month before December 25. But there is still time to catch the supreme family entertainment of the holiday season.
Let’s get the quibbles out of the way first. The show has too much Santa Claus, an odd charge given the nature of the show. Santa is used as a master of ceremonies, which is fine, but he occupies too much stage time. Santa is supposed to be a feel good character but he’s just gushy. Worse is Mrs. Claus, acting like a bad caricature of Lucille Ball. Less Santa and no wife would enhance the show considerably. And the producers can eliminate the unnecesaary intermission, even if it costs the concessions a few dollars. The New York City version plays straight through and is the better for it.
The pleasures of the Spectacular start with the Rockettes, as authentic a slice of Americana since their birth in 1932 as a Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post magazine cover. The chorus line of 18 leggy and perpetually smiling Rockettes still kicks with amazing geometric precision. Every moment they were on stage was a joy, beginning with the show stopping take on “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” Their trademark “The Parade of the Wooden Soldiers” continues to be an audience favorite.
Being a traveling show, the Spectacular can’t deliver the technical whizz bang of the permanent show in the Radio City Music Hall, but the costumes are dazzling. The color and invention of the outfits drew constant applause from the appreciative audience, from the giant toy animal outfits to the Rockettes wearing their scanty Santa Claus wardrobe.
Not that the sets and lighting are low budget. The physical production is loaded with pageantry, down to shooting ribbons into the front rows of the audience. The music covers virtually every familiar Christmas song ever composed, both sacred and profane. Much of the singing comes from an ostentatiously wholesome group of singer-dancers who alternate with the Rockettes, giving everyone time for the countless costume changes.
The singer-dancers are featured in the “Christmas in New York” number, which now omits the figure skating exhibition in a mock Rockefeller Center. Its loss isn’t critical but it was still a charming bit. And for some reason, the “Hallelujah” chorus was dropped from the “Nativity” finale, again, not a crucial loss, but what’s Christmas without the “Hallelujah” chorus"?
The “Nativity” scene is just as tasteful and impressive as ever. The children in the audience will love the donkey, two camels, and flock of sheep brought on stage for Biblical authenticity. It was a hoot watching the expressions on the faces of the sheep, wondering what they heck they were doing on the stage and who were all those people in the audience?
The Spectacular remains the great anthology show of the holiday season. What other show provides Santa Claus and “The Nutcracker” and snowfall and presents and Christmas carols and the Rockettes? If management could somehow work in a reference to Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol,” the production would really give everything.
The show gets a rating of 3 1/2 stars
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