Mamma Mia!

                  Paramount Theatre

                     by Dan Zeff

Aurora – “Mamma Mia!” is one of the box office megahits of the 21st century, but Paramount Theatre director Jim Corti obviously saw more in the show than a string of stand-alone ABBA songs inserted into a book created especially for the revue. The result is the addition of major production values whose merits reside in the eye of the beholder.

“Mamma Mia!” consists of more than 20 songs made famous by the hugely successful Swedish rock group during the 1970’s and early 1980’s. Book author Catherine Johnson skillfully stitched the numbers together into a romantic vehicle about an American expatriate mother and her 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. After discovering their names in her mother’s diary, Sophie invites all three men to the nuptials, without her mother’s knowledge. Assorted complications and confrontations ensue, ending in the expected happy resolutions. The audience exits the theater with the abundance of ABBA songs ringing melodically and rhythmically in their ears. Johnson’s book fits the Benny Andersson-Bjorn Ulvaeus songs so seamlessly that the uninitiated spectator might legitimately accept that the score and the book were deliberately crafted for each other.

Photo Credit: Liz Lauren

Corti has embellished the staging with elaborate projection, film, and lighting effects. The visuals are impressive, but sometimes distracting. “Mamma Mia!” after all is about the music. It’s hard to concentrate on the songs when Donna and the company have to compete with vast displays of $10 bills flashing on the rear screen while belting out “Money, Money, Money.” And why divert the audience’s attention from the delightful “Take a Chance on Me” song with images of shadowy birds flying across the screen in a Technicolor sky?

On the plus side, the Paramount revival has an especially strong narrative line. Corti isn’t content to concede that the show’s plot and dialogue simply provide a superstructure for the ABBA songbook. He takes seriously (but not too seriously) meaningful explorations of a mother-daughter relationship, friendship, and the need for family roots. Sophie’s need to identify her real father and Donna’s struggle to build a man-less life for herself take on genuine dramatic heft. We care about how the two generations of women resolve their personal issues and as the happy endings unfold, the viewers at the Paramount should experience real satisfaction that such nice people finally find happiness.

The large cast is most very good. Amy Montgomery credibly manages the vocally demanding role of Donna. She is especially convincing in her portrayal of a conflicted mother with demons from her past buried in her subconscious. Kiersten Frumkin is properly girlish as Sophie and yet one can sympathize with her deep seated urge to locate her real father and thus find the missing piece in her young life.

As Donna’s two best friends from her wild youth, Jennifer Knox and Sara Sevigny make an amusing odd couple, Knox as the svelte and worldly Tanya and Sevigny as the humorous Rosie (a nicely balanced performance of a character too often played for easy laughs). The production’s choreography isn’t distinguished but Knox and Aaron Patrick Craven as a young island hunk raise the dancing level with their sexy and athletic duet to “Does Your Mother Know.”

The best set of performances come from the three men from Donna’s past invited to the wedding of a girl who may or may not be their daughter. Jeff Diebold (Sam Carmichael), Michael Gillis (Harry Bright), and Steve O’Connell (Bill Austin) endow their characters with real depth, a welcome departure from positioning them primarily as plot devices. What is even more welcome, all three can sing.

Kevin Depinet has designed the serviceable set that sits comfortably on the theater’s turntable. Matt Guthier’s costume designs appropriately ascend to flash and glitz when needed. Adam Rosenthal designed the sound plan. For better or worse, Christopher Ash (projections) and Greg Hofmann (lighting) illuminate the stage, often with almost surreal disco effects. For me, their admittedly dazzling designs were a bit much for an essentially lightweight but charming story. Others will disagree, welcoming the mood setting and frequently startling visuals as imaginative embellishments rather than distractions.

Photo Credit: Liz Lauren

The Paramount announced at the beginning of the performance than the revival is going back to the original orchestrations. I didn’t notice any radical change in the musical accompaniment, but the mostly electronic small orchestra conducted by Tom Vendafreddo certainly makes an invaluable contribution with their professionalism and high energy.

“Mamma Mia!” is no longer one of the musical theater’s guilty pleasures. For years it was fashionable to take pot shots at the show for its disco ambience, just like many people, notably reviewers, once mocked “Cats.” Time has vindicated “Momma Mia!”as one of the great audience shows of our time. I still get chills every time I hear “Dancing Queen.” The opening night audience applauded enthusiastically after every number and they were jacked up with anticipation for the “Dancing Queen”-“Waterloo” finale (which could have been milked for a little more excitement). But the revue clearly connects both with the generation that grew up with the ABBA music and today’s millennials. If you are an ABBA zealot, the show is absolutely worth a trip to Aurora.

The show gets a rating of 3 stars.

“Mamma Mia” runs through October 30 at the Paramount Theatre, 23 East Galena Boulevard. Performances 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. Call 630 896 6666 or visit

   Contact Dan:         September 2016

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