ABBA’s ‘Mamma Mia!’ still darn good fun

Mary Houlihan

Chicago Sun-Times

9-18-08

“Mamma Mia!” is what it is. And that would be darn good fun. Of all the so-called “jukebox musicals,” this one has proved to be the longest lasting, keeping its fans dancing in the aisles.

ABBA members Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus had a money-making brainstorm when they fit the group’s classics into a fun-loving musical. Even those who weren’t fans of the ’70s Swedish supergroup were won over by the musical’s sassy good time.

While the plot (the book is by Catherine Johnson) remains as implausible as ever, it is shielded by an onslaught of ABBA songs. It seems there’s nothing a little “Dancing Queen” or “SOS” can’t fix.

A touring production of “Mamma Mia!” has played Chicago a handful of times. This time around, Chicago actress Susie McMonagle is featured in the role of Donna Sheridan, an expatriate American and single mom who has raised her daughter, Sophie, on a small Greek island where she owns a small hotel.

Sophie (a standout performance by Rose Sezniak) is about to marry a young man named Sky (a likable Geoffrey Hemingway), and she’s determined to have the perfect wedding. She’s stolen her mother’s diary and discovered that in 1979, the year she was conceived, there were three men in her mother’s life: Sam the American architect (John Hemphill), Bill the Australian adventurer (Martin Kildare) and Harry the British banker (a nice turn by Chicago actor Michael Aaron Lindner).

Unbeknownst to her mother and bent on finding out who her father is, she writes all three men and invites them to the wedding. One, she hopes, will walk her down the aisle.

What follows are the usual complications and surprises but no dark moments; this is an infectious musical from beginning to end.

Unlike other musicals where songs advance the storyline and express characters emotions, several of the ABBA songs lyrics-wise are a longshot fit. Most notably “Name of the Game” and “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” although Hemphill sings it beautifully.

Other songs fit nicely with the storyline and characters. The number “Money, Money, Money” seems custom-made for Donna’s single-mom story. And “Lay All Your Love on Me” is a perfect song for young lovers Sophie and Sky. It gets an added pop with a chorus line outfitted in flippers and wet suits.

McMonagle, who has proven her worth in many Chicago theaters, displays pure spunk as Donna who is blindsided when the three men from her past show up. She has the richest role and makes the most of it. Her touching and bittersweet rendition of “The Winner Takes It All,” sung to Sam, the man she still loves, is striking.

Sezniak, who quit a bartending job in January to go on tour, is an up-and-coming singer-actress to watch. Her scenes with her mother and boyfriend are true moments of emotional connection. And it doesn’t get much better than her rendition of “Thank You for the Music.”

In the end, “Mamma Mia!” is the ultimate good time musical that does the ultimate job of hiding its warts. Don’t analyze it too closely; just sit back and enjoy.

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