Running 2 Places Mamma Mia

Donna & The Dynamos (left to right) Kayla Markwardt as Rosie, Emma Ellis as Donna, and Alyssa Salerno as Tanya. (Photo provided)

“Mamma Mia” has it all: humor and heartbreak, rejection and redemption, and a charming, unexpected twist at the end. So I was eager to check out a rehearsal of the upcoming Running 2 Places production of the musical, which opens Aug. 8.

The youth theater company did not disappoint: “exuberant” is the best way to describe how they poured themselves into the dancing, belting out the songs like they were already in front of a live audience. They were clearly channeling the same humor and energy Meryl Streep and the rest of the stellar movie cast infused into the 2008 film version.

Director and choreographer Tucker Davis is putting less emphasis on the technical in the choreography than he has for other R2P shows like “Newsies.” He says “it’s more about just getting on your feet and enjoying dance and enjoying movement. It’s more inspired by joy.” 

“Mamma Mia” is the perfect summer show because it’s just plain fun, says R2P artistic director Joey Steinhagen, a sentiment echoed by virtually all the cast members I interviewed. They sang the praises of the music, too, which, for someone who grew up listening to ABBA, struck me as a weird sort of time anomaly: ABBA disbanded in 1984, yet here were teenagers 35 years later, praising their music.

But then, who could resist songs like “Dancing Queen”? Music director Ginny Maddock, an instructor at Flight Performing Arts, predicts there will be no holding the audience back for the big sing-along/dance-along finale at the end of the show. 

“Mamma Mia!” is what’s called a “jukebox” musical, meaning it’s based on the songs of a particular music group, in this case ABBA. The story was written by British playwright Catherine Johnson, but Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, who composed ABBA’s songs, were involved in the development of the musical. Steinhagen says the show has all the “silliness and playfulness” of the original music so that “you can almost feel the show winking at the audience.”

But there’s a weightier side to the story. Davis says the script makes him think about the difference between being someone’s biological father and being a father in the sense of being present. The show tells us, he says, “that families come in all shapes and sizes with different numbers of parents and sometimes we’re searching for something that doesn’t really matter.”

If you’ve seen the movie you know the story: single mom Donna (Emma Ellis) has raised her daughter Sophie (Adeline Whitener) on a beautiful Greek island, but the taverna she runs is falling apart (cue “Money Money Money”). Sophie’s about to marry Sky (Julian Speight), and in her quest to discover who her father really is, invites the three suspects to her wedding: Sam (Logan Bobnick), Bill (Nick Mras) and Harry (Max Rubenstein-Miller)—cue “Mamma Mia.” Some of my favorite songs, such as the iconic “Dancing Queen,” include wedding guests Tanya (Alyssa Salerno) and Rosie (Kayla Markwardt), Donna’s best friends and members of her old band, Donna and the Dynamos.

Davis is emphasizing the feminist angle: the show has complex female characters who don’t find resolution just through a romantic interest. For example, in Davis’ vision, “Money Money” isn’t about a woman needing a man. Ellis plays it sassy and strong, with what she calls a “girl power twist”: having a man is nice, but she’s just fine on her own, thank you very much. 

Whitener confesses that when she first read the script, Sophie annoyed her because the character seemed sort of weak. So her Sophie is “very passionate about what she wants and driven to achieve whatever she puts her mind to.”

Rubenstein-Miller’s Harry, in contrast, is feeling very sentimental about coming back to the island where his life had been less “uptight.” After seeing the show, who can blame him?

As Bobnick puts it, “It’s hot outside, so who wouldn’t want to see ‘Mamma Mia’ and spend time in the Greek Isles?”

The show will have four performances, Aug. 8-11, at DeWitt Middle School’s auditorium. Space is limited, so to be sure of getting into a show, get your tickets early. Tickets and information at http://runningtoplaces.org.

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