Review: “Mamma Mia” – Music Theater Works, Chicago – OnStage Blog
Sometimes what you really need on a night at the theater is to sit down with a smile, enjoy your old favorites, and let the songs of the night hum or sing along.
This is one of the reasons Mamma Mia is such a popular musical that can draw big crowds, as it did on the opening night of the Music Theater Works production in their new location, the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, north of Chicago.
The audience is immediately welcomed to the tropical paradise of the Greek island where Sophie is about to be married and tries to find out who her father is, something her mother, Donna, told her she didn’t know. not. Lighting designer Andrew Myers and set designer Kristen Martino create a light set with the sunset colors of pinks and oranges and a welcoming tavern with white hanging lights. It is a skilled partnership that effectively communicates transitions and moods.
Director Justin Brill and musical director and conductor Linda Madonia skip the usual opening to dive straight into the story, a move that makes a lot of sense in a musical that’s already two and a half hours long and in which the public is (fortunately) required to remain masked at all times.
Heather Banks steps in as Sophie, singing the heartfelt prologue. Banks, who has starred in a wide variety of popular musicals and TV commercials, immediately shows off his vocal talents, radiating charm and a believable blend of innocence and strength. She and Alexis Armstrong, who plays Donna, have incredible chemistry, showing both warmth and tension in what is clearly a romantic relationship, regardless of their differences.
Banks does a great job of alternating between sweet and sultry, with an imposing stage presence that always catches the eye. She generates empathy as she struggles to make difficult decisions, whether it’s finding out who her father is, understanding her mother’s choices, or knowing what she wants from her impending marriage and the rest of his life. Her musical numbers were a highlight of the show as her full voice possessed each number.
Armstrong gives audiences a strong Donna, one who easily intimidates her staff and the former men in her life while being able to completely collapse in front of her best friends. His Donna is complex and entertaining – Armstrong has excellent comedic timing both physically and vocally.
While Armstrong and Banks dominate the scene, much of the fun in Mamma Mia is overall: the hen party, the groom’s friends kidnap her for a bachelorette party, the tavern guests and Sophie’s dream scene with her potential fathers competing to walk her down the aisle. Everyone as a whole brings a character on stage, contributing to the enjoyment of the show. Some of the stars include Veronica Garza as Rosie, Oliver Schilling as Pepper, Ahmad K. Simmons as Sky and Andrew Fortman as Sam Carmichael.
Garza, who is new to Musical Theater Works but has performed throughout the region, has some great moves that made audiences laugh and portrayed an infectious bliss that strengthened her two best friends and made her scenes with Bill (one of the potential fathers) especially entertaining. The two made the house laugh during “Take a Chance On Me”.
Schilling is a choreographer, actor and director at the same time and he had very good movements, especially since he tried to seduce Tanya (Donna’s other best friend) during “Does Your Mother Know”. He stopped right before he got sleazy even though he skillfully made grimaces at his lame pickup lines. But no matter what he says, it’s his dance that steals the stage.
Simmons is the perfect counterpoint to Armstrong. While her character expresses anxiety and uncertainty, her Sky, Sophie’s fiancé, is steadfast and confident. The two turn up the heat with “Lay All Your Love on Me” and her total sympathy raises the stakes surrounding the end result of the marriage.
Fortman always has a long-term view in mind. While a jukebox musical can often tempt an actor to skip the character arc in favor of a traditional presentation of a musical favorite, Fortman’s Sam (a potential father and the one who carried the torch for Donna) always keeps her character’s motivation at the forefront. He shows his discomfort, his desire, his sense of loss. It makes the ending rather fantastic at least a little believable. It brought a haunting nervousness to “Know Me, Know You”.
The other star is Shanna VanDerwerker, a choreographer who comes to Musical Theater Works with an impressive array of references. Not that her resume matters as much as the absolutely energetic choreography painted with character-driven storytelling. She pushes the performers and pulls out dance numbers that are as exciting and interesting as the songs are known and hummable. The numbers are creative and keep the night high octane. She even puts the male ensemble in flippers for a dance number before taking Sky to her bachelorette party.
Costume designer Rueben Echoles created eye candy from start to finish. Whether it’s the glitz-soaked 70s glam outfits for the girl power group (and later their male counterparts), transformations from casual to sexy short dresses, or the quasi-robotic dads from Sophie’s nightmare, Echoles from a wide palette of wedding whites, tropical oranges and trendy blacks to keep visual interest high.
Brill acknowledges that his audience has been away from the theater for too long, and that many are looking for a night free from the stress and anxiety that has accompanied the pandemic and fears it may enter a deadly new phase. He invites the audience to this fictional Greek island and welcomes them to enjoy the song, the dance and an ultimately silly premise. He encourages his actors to keep the stakes high but also to never lose sight of that “Mamma Mia” is meant to be an easy night at the theater.
It might have been better if the fathers lost their accent in the first scene because they are not well groomed for the rest of the show and while the rest of the show is easy, this scene forces the audience to understand everything. that is being said.
As for the rest of the evening, the cast and crew create an oasis of indulgence in musical theater, one that keeps the promise of entertaining from start to finish. And sends the audience back with earworms that will certainly last for days.