TUPELO • In preparation for its 50th season, Tupelo Community Theatre wanted an opening production that would generate excitement for the milestone year.
So, TCT decided to take a chance on one of the world’s most popular musicals – “Mamma Mia!”.
Inspired by the music of the Swedish pop group ABBA, “Mamma Mia!” has been performed in numerous productions and tours around the globe since its debut in 1999. It’s one of Broadway’s longest-running musicals and was made into a movie, followed by its sequel.
TCT didn’t waste time securing the rights to perform the Tony Award-nominated musical when it became available for venues like the Lyric Theatre.
“It’s been seen by about 60 million people over the years,” said TCT director Tom Booth, who’s directing the local “Mamma Mia!” production. “This is the first year that it’s available for community theater. We try to be on the front line of that. When we knew we could get a contract for August, we took it.”
TCT’s golden season kicks off with “Mamma Mia!” on Aug. 22-24. The 2019-2020 season includes three plays and wraps up in April with the musical “Spamalot.”
“Our season ticket sales are up this year,” Booth said. “It may be the 50th anniversary that caught a lot of people’s attention, but I also think it’s the season we’re presenting this year. We typically don’t do two big musicals.”
“Mamma Mia!” is a jukebox musical written by British playwright Catherine Johnson and features music composed by ABBA members Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson. It opened on London’s West End before arriving on Broadway in 2001. It played 5,758 performances – the ninth longest-running show in Broadway history – until it closed in 2015.
Familiar ABBA hits from the 1970s and ‘80s like “S.O.S.” and “Dancing Queen” help tell the hilarious story of Sophie, a young woman searching for her birth father. While preparing for her wedding on a Greek island, Sophie encounters three men from her mother’s past who have returned to the island they last visited 20 years ago.
“It’s a fun show,” said Jeff Houin, one of the TCT actors in the play. “It’s always great to start the season with a bang if you can. The past few years, we’ve started with smaller musicals and they’ve been well received. But we notched it up this year. ... There’s a buzz. People are excited about it.”
Houin, who’s on TCT’s play search committee, said the availability of “Mamma Mia!” for community theaters was too good for TCT to pass up.
“Some shows will have a mile restriction, like you can’t do a show within so many miles of another,” he said. “We didn’t know what the restrictions might possibly be. Another concern was if we waited until the spring, if someone else decided to do it, it might not be available. We wanted to jump on it.”
Booth said the cast will make “Mamma Mia!” an entertaining performance.
“We’ve got a great cast. We’ve got a lot of TCT veterans and we’ve got a quite a few new people,” he said. “Unfortunately, we had to turn down a lot of talented people. We had 90 people audition for less than 30 roles.”
Kayley Phillips, a TCT newcomer, plays Sophie while Lisa Martin plays Donna, Sophie’s mother. Tanya (Renee Baldwin) and Rosie (Suzanne Oakley) are reunited with their friend Donna on the island. The three men from Donna’s past are Sam (Houin), Bill (John Carroll) and Harry (Judd Wilson).
Martin, who has been a part of TCT for about 20 years, is enthusiastic about playing Donna.
“For some reason, I tend to do a lot of the darker, sadder things, so this is a change for me because the music is so fantastic,” she said. “It’s a fun, happy show. As a theatergoer, I tend to enjoy those shows the most if I know the words to the songs. It’s going to be a fun show either to watch it or on the stage.”
Martin said she’s seen “Mamma Mia!” both in the theater and on the screen, and has compared herself to the other Donnas.
“Especially with the movie, someone as iconic as Meryl Streep,” Martin said. “It’s really hard to watch and want to mimmic everything she does because she’s so freakishly talented. I think it’s healthy to some degree, but I’m trying to bring my own unique take to the role of Donna.”
Phillips, who’s in her first TCT production, also takes the advice of her TCT director to shy away from playing Sophie just like Amanda Seyfried in the film adaptations.
“Tom told us, ‘Don’t compare yourselves. Make the character your own.’ I think that’s the biggest part I’ve had to work on, making it not Amanda. She is Sophie in my eyes,” said Phillips, an Itawamba Community College sophomore. “But I’m making Sophie my character. I’m developing what she means to me. She’s very complex and I love it. I have compared myself, but I’m trying to work out of it.”
“Mamma Mia!” runs Aug. 22-24 with 7:30 p.m. performances. A Saturday matinee is set for 2 p.m.
Tickets are $25 for adults and $10 for students and younger. For more information or to purchase tickets, call (662) 844-1935.