MAMMA MIA! • The Gold Standard

Great Lakes Bay Regional Alliance Presents One of Broadway's Highest Grossing Musicals

Posted In: Arts & Entertainment, ,   From Issue 884   By: Robert E Martin

29th August, 2019     0

To kick off their 2019-20 theatrical seasons, Pit & Balcony Community Theatre, Bay City Players and Midland Center for the Arts have opted to merge their collective talents and resources to stage an ambitious production of the contemporary Broadway musical Mamma Mia!, which will run from September 20-22 & 27-29 at Midland Center for the Arts.

Written by British playwright Catherine Johnson and based upon the songs of the stellar ‘70s musical combo ABBA, with music composed by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, former members of the band, the title of the musical is taken from the group's 1975 chart-topper "Mamma Mia". Ulvaeus and Andersson, who composed the original music for ABBA, were involved in the development of the show from its inception; and ABBA singer Anni-Frid Lyngstad was involved financially in the original  production.

The musical includes such hits as "Super Trouper", "Lay All Your Love on Me", "Dancing Queen", "Knowing Me, Knowing You", "Take a Chance on Me", "Thank You for the Music", "Money, Money, Money", "The Winner Takes It All", "Voulez-Vous", "SOS" and the title track. Over 60 million people have seen the show, which has grossed $2 billion worldwide since its 1999 debut; and a film adaptation starring Meryl Streep, Colin Firth, Pierce Brosnan and Julie Walters was released in July 2008.  As of 2018, the show has productions in London's West End, where it is the seventh longest-running show in West End history, as well as various international productions. Its Broadway incarnation closed in September 2015 after a 14-year run, making it the ninth longest-running show in Broadway history.

The plot and story line involves Sophia Sheridan, who is 20-years old and lives with her mother Donna on an idyllic Greek island.  Donna owns a simple hotel in the island and once sang with her friends Rosie and Tanya in their band Donna and the Dynamos.  Sophie is about to be married and wishes for only one thing: that her father walk her down the aisle and give her away. The only problem is that she doesn't know who her father is and her mother won't discuss it with her. After she finds her mom's diary from the year she was born, she invites three men who could possibly be that man. Sophie is convinced that she will know her father as soon as she sees him, but soon realizes that she hasn't a clue. Mayhem ensues when her mother is displeased and confused that the three are there, the men all think they're the father and her fiancé is getting fed up with the whole mess.

Given the scope and spectacle of this production, it seems the perfect production to approach with the combined efforts of all three community theatres in the Great Lakes Bay Region; and for Director Tommy Wedge, Pit & Balcony’s Amy Spadafore, MCFTA’s Dexter Brigham, and Bay City Player’s Kathy Pawloski, the challenges involved with this production have been as equally unique as they’ve been positive.

“What’s interesting is that all of us have been involved with the planning phase of this production for over a year now,” reflects Tommy Wedge. “This is a very large production and there’s so many moving pieces involved, but what I’ve found is that once you get into the rehearsal room it’s like any musical in terms of building an ensemble, building the dimensions for the sets, and finding one’s place within the music and the show. All of that is coming together well because the team is all top-notch. There’s all sort of logistical challenges we’re still navigating, but what’s helpful is that the producing team and the Boards at each of the theatres have been very responsive and able to keep the higher level things from impacting the rehearsal process, so it becomes a support and not a hindrance.  With a musical of this complexity things pop out that you don’t know about until you confront them.”

“From a producing angle, it has been interesting to see how things have evolved since Kathy, Dexter and I sat down over a year ago to discuss how great this special project was going to be,” adds Amy Spadafore. “Many of the big ideas and visions have changed and morphed once you get into the process because initially you have a lot of time to sit and discuss things, but then only have so much time to do these things before you need to move on to the next thing. I think we’re all very motivated and ambitious people and very excited for this project, so a lot of the conceptualization started by dreaming really big and then when reality slaps you in the face, you need to make adjustments.”

“With the public performances in Midland we have a cast of 38 on a 60 foot proscenium stage with 1500 seating, but for the school performances we’re staging at Pit & Balcony we need to literally pare the show down from a 38 to a 24 person cast in a stage space half the size and 1/8th the seating space of Midland. We knew this from the beginning, but it’s probably one of the biggest challenges because in a way it’s like producing two plays.”

“Actually, we have three different performances with this project,” adds Tommy, “with each one tethered to a different space. We have the school matinees at Pit & Balcony, the public performances in Midland, and then we are staging a cabaret performance in Bay City on September 5th & 6th, so are rehearing three different components at the same time. Essentially, we’re using this to build audiences and inform the region about the various musical productions we’ll be staging throughout our 2019-20 season. Director Laura Brigham is bringing in about 8 to 10 cast members from our production and about 20 more from the various community theatres to showcase the upcoming events at all three theatres. The Cabaret Expose’ is a good way to showcase the collaborative experience, not only with Mamma Mia!, but with songs from each of our respective seasons from all productions.”

As a director, Tommy Wedge has developed a shining reputation for the inventive & innovative ways he interprets contemporary musicals for the stage. How is he approaching Mamma Mia! and what are some of the elements and thematic attributes of the story-line is he attempting to emphasize and focus upon?

“Undoubtedly, this is a big musical and for me the whole concept is about connection and taking something you can see and looking at it with fresh eyes,” states Wedge. “The set will stay the same throughout all the productions, as it is a visual representation from the Greek island of Santorini. The challenge is using this somewhat static space and transforming it into an inventive space.

“As for the thematic idea of connection, that works on many levels. We have three theatres, three fathers, three friends, so this theme of trios makes it easy to get hooked into numbers,” he continues. “Songs like Slipping Through My Fingers, which involves just the mother & daughter, are for me what makes this show worthwhile.  In terms of ‘Jukebox Musicals’, Mamma Mia! was the gold standard. Many other shows tried similar approaches by building musical productions around popular songs, but they didn’t rise to that level of success because they didn’t have the heart and connection that this one does. There’s more meat to the storyline.”

In terms of auditions and casting, Tommy says the audition turnout was just shy of 70 people and 38 actors were cast. “It’s a splendid cast with strong representation from each of the Tri-Cities and some from Mt. Pleasant as well,” he notes. “Holly Booth plays the role of Donna Sheridan and she’s been a teacher in Midland working with kids with autism and has been volunteering her talents at the Midland Center for the Arts for years.  This is her first lead role in a musical and its good seeing her develop. Ironically, her character in Mamma Mia! shares parallels with her real life, as Donna is a single Mom blazing her own trail and Holly is the same thing.  I worked with her in the ensemble of Beauty & the Beast, and it’s a revelation seeing how she’s grown in two years.”

“And then we have the ‘Dads’, which also reflect a nice slice of the region. Harry Bright is played by Chad William Baker, who always makes interesting choices as an actor; and his understudy is Ryan Smith, who is very successful at Dow and his first time ever on stage.  The reason we have several understudies in this production is because Chad needs to work during the matinee performances, so Ryan will be filling in for him.”

“Additionally, we have Karly Laskowski, Natalie Slawnyk, Ann Russell-Lutenske, Bill Adamo and Aaron Haines in the cast, and although many of the actors in the cast people have seen before, I feel each one of them are growing beyond themselves and being pushed in different ways with this production.”

Handling the choreography is Jennifer Hopkins, who Tommy says is new to the region. “She’s a professional choreographer based out of Washington, D.C. with a strong background in choreography and Shakespeare. She’s here for two-and-a-half solid weeks teaching choreography to the cast for the framework of the production; and just had a baby a few days ago. She’ll convalesce for a couple weeks and then come back before we open.  The cast found Jennifer’s choreography challenging but absolutely do-able.  What I like about her approach is that sometimes choreographers position the strong dancers in the frontline; whereas Jennifer is savvy about integrating the cast into different parts of the numbers. Plus, the cast is finding confidence regarding their dance skills they didn’t know they had.”

“When we say this is a one-of-a-kind unique production, it really is,” emphasizes Tommy. “If you do a  google search about theatrical collaborations, you won’t find much about it. Just to be able to say ‘I saw a production where three different theatres worked this closely together’ is one-of-a-kind on its own and should draw audiences in. For me personally, I look at how musicals are made and what becomes popular and it usually involves putting a fresh twist to familiar elements.”

“Not only the three community theatres, but SVSU as well are working together on building camaraderie and cooperation because we’re all in this together,” adds Amy. “It’s the culminating project of at least five years of efforts and we’re all on the same team and don’t have to compete. We’re sharing artists, designers, and directors.”

“When I first started volunteering at Pit & Balcony, I saw the same people on the stage all the time. Now today its more about the play and the team and more about building the performance.  It’s still community theatre, only the community is the entire region.”

“From a technical perspective the joint production is beneficial as well,” notes Tommy. “My colleague at SVSU, Peggy Mead-Finizio, developed a programmable lighting grid of LED tape that we outline the entire set with. This way we can make it into a travelling tract for all kinds of exciting stuff. We’ve built a stronger lighting structure at the Midland Center for the Arts, so we’ll have all these lighting elements happening and then can also transfer that to Pit & Balcony so all those performances will have the same dynamic visual quality.”

The Great Lakes Bay Regional Alliance production of ‘Mamma Mia!’ will take place Sept. 20-22 & 27-29 at Midland Center for the Arts. Friday & Saturday performances are at 7:30 pm, and Sunday Matinees are at 3 PM. Tickets start at $25.00 and can be purchased online at the box offices of MCFTA, Pit & Balcony Community Theatre, or Bay City Players; and also by phoning 989.631.5930.







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