- By gentleguide
- On Fri 29 Jun 2018
Time to take a trip! The Greek island of Kalokairi is the setting for the musical Mamma Mia!, featuring the music of supergroup ABBA. You don’t have to go all the way to Greece, but you do have to travel a bit more than usual to see this Des Moines Playhouse production, opening July 13. While the Playhouse goes through its final stages of remodeling, the show goes on the road to the Staplin Center at Valley West High School in West Des Moines.
Our Last Summer
The Executive Director of the Playhouse is David Kilpatrick, and while he typically works in other areas of the Playhouse, for this production of Mamma Mia! he’s taking charge as director. “This particular summer is a challenge by being outside our normal space. We didn’t want to create even more confusion by having a guest director who would have to be very, very adaptable to the constantly changing situation. Thus, it was incumbent to have a staff member be the director. With [Artistic Director] John Viars just completing Ragtime and working on Billy Elliot to open our 100th season, it was only fair to give him a little break between two very large productions. As I have a wide range of directing experience, and now that construction is underway, it seemed important to the playhouse for me to be able to connect with the performing volunteers. Thus, I got the gig.”
“We are treating the show like we are on a ‘national tour,’” says Kilpatrick, “so we are being careful with the signage, instructions for performers, and making lots of lists of things to bring. Fortunately, we are only 3.5 miles from our storage, so it is easy to run back. What is particularly interesting about our performance space, it is 50’ wide compared to our 30’ stage at home. Thus our set is considerably bigger than anything we have done before. Unfortunately, due to construction, we are building it in our children’s theatre, which is one of the smaller spaces we have. The irony is not lost on us!”
Mamma Mia! tells the story of mom Donna (played by Kellie Kramer) and her daughter Sophie (Jess Richter). Sophie’s getting married, and wants her long-absent father to give her away at the ceremony. The only problem is, there are three possible choices for the part of “Dad”, as Donna never married and her younger life was hardly committed to one relationship. Unbeknownst to Donna, Sophie invites all three “Dads” to her wedding, sure that she will recognize her father. And chaos ensues, all to the accompaniment of classic ABBA rock and roll.
Mamma Mia! is a “jukebox musical” in the best sense, in that it takes the library of songs by ABBA and weaves them through a storyline that didn’t originally exist when the songs were first written. Some “jukebox musicals” have to try mightily to make the songs work with the story, but ABBA band members and original composers Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus were part of the creative team for the musical from the start.
Kellie Kramer is well-known to Iowa audiences, from her theatre experience in many shows in the area or as co-host of the Iowa Outdoors program on Iowa Public Television. But Mamma Mia! is special to her. “This show has been on my performance bucket list since I saw the first national tour years ago. As I left the theater that night I hoped that I would be the right age to play Donna by the time the rights were available so I'm super excited to have this opportunity!”
“The ABBA songbook is certainly the main attraction but it isn't the only thing to love about the show. The story itself has so much for audiences to connect with--the enduring nature of strong female friendships, the emotions of a single mother planning her only daughter's wedding, a young couple approaching their wedding, and the challenges of unexpectedly reconnecting with long-ago loves. It's a feel-good, emotional roller coaster on a Greek island with an incredibly fun, familiar songbook. What's not to love?”
Kramer continues, “Even though the songs are all pop hits in their own right, the approach for me as an actor is the same as it is on any musical. The lyrics are an extension of the emotions and actions of the scene so it's my job to make them work that way in character in the moment. It's an interesting exercise on this particular show as an actor because it makes you really deconstruct the lyrics of songs that you've sung along to for years on the radio to pick apart the meaning and build various acting moments. It forces you to see some of these well-known hits in a new light rather than just something with a fun beat or cool harmonies.”
“Something that makes Mamma Mia! unique from other other jukebox musicals is that the original songwriters (Benny and Bjorn) were involved in creating the show and I think that helps tie the original hits to the musical's story rather than just having them exist in a vacuum around some plot points--which can be the danger of creating a jukebox show.”
Knowing Me, Knowing You
Kilpatrick is trying to balance it all. “As a director, I believe it is extremely important to tell the story with the text I have, regardless of book or songs. My biggest concern about directing this show was I didn’t want it to be an excuse for an ABBA cover band. I really want to bring out the plot and tell Donna’s story. However, I will still have the big production numbers that we’ve all grown to expect. But hopefully, they will be purposeful, rather than “wait, stop the show, let’s sing a song” kind of thing that many jukebox musicals do.”
“The director’s primary job is to tell the story. I’m hoping that as people leave, they will appreciate the tale of Donna and her daughter and the transitions that take place over the course of 30 hours. Of course, I want the audience to enjoy the fun of the show and get into the spirit of summer fare. Bring your flop flops, where shorts and dance in the aisle, if you are so moved.”
The most vital parts of Mamma Mia! are the relationships in the show. Whether it’s the mother/daughter relationship, the old boyfriends rediscovering Donna, or Donna and the girl group she was a part of back in the days (as “Donna and the Dynamos”), the important thing is making those relationships ring true.
“As an actor it isn't any different than trying to establish any relationship on stage--understanding the relationship dynamics as established in the script, drawing from your personal experiences to inform acting choices, and developing a relationship with your fellow actor to create on-stage chemistry.”
Specifically concerning the Donna/Sophie relationship, Kramer found it easy to connect with her co-star Jess Richter. “Women are intimately familiar with the unique complexities of a mother/daughter relationship, so I have decades of experiences to draw on from my own life and the lives of the women around me, both as mothers and as daughters dealing with their mothers. Weddings, specifically, have away of bringing out the good and bad of that relationship. Jess is fun, talented, and full of energy so we're having a great time working together, and it isn't difficult to manufacture that protective mothering feeling when she looks at you with big, expressive eyes! ”
Mamma Mia! promises laughter, great music, some outrageous costumes, and a stellar band led by Ben Hagen and featuring FOUR keyboards to help re-create that classic ABBA sound. Kramer is hyped to sing in a favorite musical, Kilpatrick is ready to direct his first show for Des Moines audiences, and the whole Playhouse crew is ready for their road trip. Mamma Mia! runs for three weeks starting July 13 at the Staplin Center at Valley High School, just off I-235. Tickets are available through the usual Playhouse outlets (website and by calling 515-277-6261, but know that their ticket “offices” are temporarily in the parking lot at the Playhouse while remodeling is taking place. So, grab your tickets and get ready to travel to Greece (via West Des Moines) for Mamma Mia!
Photos courtesy of the Des Moines Playhouse. Publicity photos by Brent Isenberger.