By Karen Topham
When Mamma Mia! debuted on Broadway in 2001, COVID was not even a term on anyone’s mind. (SARS/CoV-1, the first dangerous coronavirus strain, was not discovered until the following year.) But bringing people back emotionally from a dark circumstance was part of the show’s legacy from the beginning. The joyous jukebox musical featuring the songs of 70s Swedish pop band ABBA and a sweet and often silly book by Catherine Johnson was among the first theatrical openings to follow the closing of Broadway after 9/11—the last time before the pandemic that the Great White Way had been shut down. Now, just when we need another jolt of adrenaline and positivity, Music Theater Works is bringing Chicago a new revival of this infectious, upbeat show.
This production was originally slated for June of 2020, but…well, you know. Having to wait out the year and a half shutdown, though, has allowed its team of designers and actors to find new depth in a show that has not hitherto been known for that quality. Though it is, of course, still the same “frothy romp,” Alexis Armstrong, who plays Donna, says that “there’s so much more depth and heart and connection than I was expecting, honestly.” Her character is a free spirit whose brief sexual flings two decades earlier have resulted in a daughter, Sophie (played here by Heather Banks), who has no idea which of her mother’s three former lovers is her father—a situation that forms the basis for the musical’s entire plot as Sophie surreptitiously invites all three men to her upcoming wedding. Armstrong feels that the delay has left the cast feeling that, despite the silliness, “we’re speaking truth. We’re creating families and honoring a full spectrum of humans in this world.”
Banks shares her stage “mother’s” reaction, but takes it further. Two decades ago, no one was talking about “creating safe environments” for actors in plays. Times have changed, though, and Banks notes that, “during the shutdown, we all had a lot of time to reflect on the messages that we want to convey on stage, but also how we handle health as (artists). You know, there used to be the ‘show must go on’ mentality, but as we’ve seen in prominent figures, especially Simone Biles, it’s not worth sacrificing your mental health. (Director) Justin (Brill) and (choreographer) Shanna (VanDerwerker) have made it such a great environment for us.”
VanDerwerker credits Brill (who was unavailable for interviews) with adding an intimacy coordinator (Sheryl Williams) to the design team. “I think bringing her in and putting her on our team was essential, not only for those standard intimate moments, but I thought that Sheryl was incredibly helpful guiding us through being humans and being artists again.” The result, she feels, is a production that really does justice to the material and the people involved. “Mamma Mia! is so silly, but it’s actually really a lovely, lovely show and I think that Justin has done a really good job of guiding our whole company through keeping it honest and true to these people.”
North Rory Homewood, who plays one of the would-be fathers, Harry (and who—full disclosure—is also my son), agrees with these assessments, noting that “when everyone involved feels heard and buoyed and loved, the energy in the work is just so much better. I have never felt more supported by a design team; it has been an absolute dream working with these wonderful artists.” And, he says, the show is much better for it. “One of the best things about this production of Mamma Mia! is the way it marries the completely delightful romp we have come to associate with this musical with a more honest and real, almost down-to-earth look at these characters, rather than overplayed caricatures. The result is somehow intimate and exuberant at the same time, and it is so, so fun. Even the ensemble, who is basically here in this show to be a dramatically dancing contrasting backdrop to the intimacy of the events happening in front of them, were instructed not to be too ‘showy,’ but instead to keep any moments feeling very real.”
Looking back on the last two years, Armstrong says that “anything can change at any time. And I think there’s an element of that in the show and the joy that we all are feeling, being together and working together, that shines through. I’m sure (audiences) would have really enjoyed it before, but it’s just a different, pure joy.” That desperately needed pure joy opens on Wednesday, August 18, at 1:00 PM at North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie and runs through August 29. Tickets are available from Music Theater Works.