Curtain Rises: Munopco gives ‘Mamma Mia!’ its Lehigh Valley debut
When “Mamma Mia” became available for community theaters to stage, Rody Gilkeson didn’t waste any time helping to secure the rights to be the first in the Lehigh Valley to direct it.
“When ‘Mamma Mia!’ got released, Munopco grabbed it because it’s an extremely popular show,” says Gilkeson.
“Once it got released for community theater two years ago, if you were in an area where the national tour was going through, you had to wait.
“We’re the first to be doing it in the Lehigh Valley as a community theater,” says Gilkeson. Munopco music direction is by Julius Sarkozy and choreography is by Jessica Mulligan.
Munopco Music Theatre of Allentown opens its 2019-2020 season with the Lehigh Valley premiere of “Mamma Mia!,” 8 p.m. Oct. 12, 18 and 19 and 2 p.m. Oct. 13 and 20, Scottish Rite Cathedral, 1533 Hamilton St., Allentown.
“Mamma Mia!” is a musical based on the hits of Swedish pop band, Abba, founded in Stockholm in 1972 by Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson and Anni-Frid Lyngstad. The group’s name is derived from the first letters of the group members’ first names.
The hits of Abba are integrated into the storyline of “Mamma Mia!,” which takes place on a fictional Greek island on the eve of the wedding of Sophie. She has invited three men, one of whom may be her father from a visit there with her mother 20 years ago.
Abba hits include “Super Trouper,” “Dancing Queen,” “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” “Take a Chance on Me,” “Thank You for the Music,” “Money, Money, Money,” “The Winner Takes It All,” “SOS” and the title song.
The Munopco production is sung and danced to pre-recorded music from Music Theatre International, which handles the rights to the “Mamma Mia!” musical.
The jukebox musical, written by British playwright Catherine Johnson, is taken from the group’s 1975 hit, “Mamma Mia!” The musical opened in London’s West End in 1999 where it continues to run. The show opened on Broadway in 2001 and closed in 2015, making it the longest-running jukebox musical and the ninth longest-running Broadway musical. The show was nominated for five Tony Awards in 2002.
“Mamma Mia!” was produced as a theatrical feature movie, released in 2008. A sequel, “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again,” was released in 2018.
In the movies, Allentown native Amanda Seyfried starred as Sophie, the daughter of Donna, played by Meryl Streep. Dominic Cooper was Sky, Sophie’s fiancé. The cast included Pierce Brosnan as Sam, Colin Firth as Harry and Stellan Skarsgård as Bill. Christine Baranski was Tanya and Julie Walters was Rosie, two members of Donna’s former girl group, Donna and the Dynamos.
In the Munopco production, Alessandra Fanelli plays Sophie, the bride-to-be; Elizabeth Marsh-Gilkeson plays Donna, Sophie’s mother, and Mark Domyan plays Sam.
“Mark hasn’t done anything at Munopco for a long time,” says Gilkeson. “He is the consummate actor. He’s very focused and has created a very beautiful character from day one.
“Alessandra is perfect for this part,” Gilkeson continues. “This was a dream role for her, and I can see why. Her whole character is basically Alessandra coming to life as Sophie. They’re very similar.
“Elizabeth is a joy to work with. Her relationship with her mother is very similar to Sophie’s and Donna. There’s a lot for her to sink her teeth into with this role,” says Gilkeson.
Gilkeson and Marsh-Gilkeson celebrated their 10th wedding anniversary in April.
Also in the Munopco production are Robert Calder as Bill and Matt Redline as Harry.
Rounding out the cast are Sue Matol as Tanya, Donna’s friend and one of the Dynamos; Trish Steele as Rosie, Donna’s friend and also a member of the girl group, and Jonathan Muniz as Sky, Sophie’s fiancé.
The cast of 41, with an ensemble of 28 singers and dancers, includes Andrew Stewart (Pepper), Jack Miller (Eddie), Milaijah Torres (Ali), Samantha Zosky (Lisa) and Ted Williams (Father Alexandrios).
While “Mamma Mia!” is a jukebox musical, it’s much more than that.
“That’s what I really like about it,” says Gilkeson. “Even though they call it a jukebox musical ... and I’ve seen a lot of them ... this is the one that doesn’t live up to that title. It goes way beyond.
“The other jukebox musicals I’ve seen, although very entertaining, the storylines sort of fall by the wayside.
“There’s just a lot more in-depth character work in ‘Mamma Mia!,’ and the piece itself lends to a lot emotion because every song tells the story.”
Gilkeson says that in directing “Mamma Mia!’” he made a discovery:
“There’s a tribute in this show to the musical, ‘Brigadoon.’ I don’t if anybody else has ever found this. It’s very strange in that the gentleman comes back to find his love, just like in ‘Brigadoon.’”
Gilkesson directed the Munopco production of “Brigadoon” in fall 2018.
“It’s almost because this island is so beautiful, it’s almost become a fantasy in his mind. They fall in love again and he stays on the island with her, just like in ‘Brigadoon.’
“There’s bagpipes in this, from out of nowhere. Sky, Pepper and Eddie come back from the bachelor party the next morning, and Eddie is playing the bagpipes. Now why is he playing bagpipes in Greece?”
Returning to the storyline in “Mamma Mia!,” Gilkeson says that, at its heart, the musical has a lot of heart:
“There are certain characters who are over the top, but Sophie, Sky and Donna are very real. It’s really a show about Sophie, Donna and Sam. They’re the main focus.
“Donna had obviously been of the time period, the Woodstock Generation, whereas her daughter is far more traditional and wants to have the white wedding, the one guy and the family.
“It’s a self-discovery by mother and daughter,” says Gilkeson, theater administrator for Pennsylvania Playhouse, Bethlehem, since May 2018. Elizabeth Marsh-Gilkeson is vice president of the Munopco board. Cheryl Dreas is Munopco board president.
After “Mamma Mia!” at Munopco, Gilkeson directs “She Loves Me,” the musical version of “The Shop Around the Corner,” Dec. 6-22 at Pennsylvania Playhouse.
But that’s another story.
Tickets: munopco.org/tickets; 610-437-2441, and at the door.
“Curtain Rises” is a column about the theater, stage shows, the actors in them and the directors and others who make them happen. Email: Paul Willistein, Focus editor, email@example.com