Valley premiere of musical garners unprecedented sales
Thursday, November 29, 2018
By GUY D’ASTOLFO
“Mamma Mia!” is already the best-selling show in recent memory at the Youngstown Playhouse – and it hasn’t even opened yet.
James McClellan, operations manager of the Playhouse, knew demand for the show – which opens Friday – would be brisk.
The musical is the hottest title to become available to community theaters this season, and the Playhouse is the first in the Mahoning Valley to land the rights to it.
“The response was immediate,” said McClellan. “We jumped on it because we suspected it would be the big musical for our season, and that gamble turned out to be correct.” After securing the rights a few months ago, the Playhouse bumped “9 to 5” out of the holiday season slot to make room for it.
Demand was voracious as soon as the show was announced, and to meet it the Playhouse scheduled eight performances instead of the usual six. The additional shows are next Thursday evening (Dec. 6), and a rare matinee on the second Saturday (Dec. 8).
Half of the performances are sold out – including all three on opening weekend – and tickets are growing scarce for the second weekend, with just a few dozen left for each show.
Sales have already outpaced that of the Playhouse’s 2015 production of “CATS” – the theater’s reigning box-office champ
The Playhouse has 465 seats available for each performance, which is the total on the floor; it does not sell seats in the balcony.
“Mamma Mia!” is unabashedly frilly and fun, which is just part of its appeal.
It is written around a selection of songs by ABBA, the 1970s Swedish pop supergroup, and includes the title song, plus “Dancing Queen,” “SOS,” “Take a Chance on Me,” “The Winner Takes It All” and several more. In the musical, those songs become choreographed scenes that range from intimate to stage-swallowing spectacles.
“It’s pure escapism ...and it’s the ABBA songs,” said McClellan, explaining its popularity. “[The songs] are what hooks you. They’re fun, lively and melodic. They’re like a new version of the show tunes of old – and that’s how they are used in this show. The story is really an excuse to bring in those tuneful songs,” he continued. “They weren’t written for that purpose, but they are given a new context.”
The playwrights used an existing plot as a vehicle to showcase the bouncy ABBA tunes. The trick was to make the songs fit the story.
“The plot had been used before [in prior stage and screen titles],” said McClellan. “It gives the musical a whiff of familiarity, and we know that audiences like familiarity. Of course, if the songs didn’t fit in with that story, it would be a disaster. But they do.”
McClellan noted that during the holiday season, people tend to look for lightweight and joyful entertainment, and “Mamma Mia!” fits the bill.
Set on a picturesque Greek island, the musical tells the story of a young woman’s search for her birth father. On the eve of her wedding, she summons three men from her mother’s past back to the island they last visited 20 years ago in an effort to figure out which one is her father.
“Mamma Mia!” made its debut in London in 1999, where it is still currently running.
A Broadway production opened two years later, and ran for 14 years, making it one of the 10 longest-running shows in Broadway history.
A film version, released in 2008 and starring Meryl Streep, became one of the highest-grossing films of its year, and its cinematic sequel opened in theaters earlier this summer.
Donna Smith Downie is directing the Playhouse production. She was on board to helm “9 to 5” and said she was thrilled to switch to “Mamma Mia!”
Her preparation did not include rewatching the movie, because she did not want to be influenced by it. The stage version, she pointed out, is just too different from the film.
Set on a paradisical Mediterranean island, the film is as scenic as a travelogue.
But the stage version relies on dancing and singing. The set – minimal and functional – is actually incorporated into the choreography; it is moved by the ensemble in front of the audience.
What hasn’t changed is the music, the story and the bubbly performance style.
What: ”Mamma Mia!”
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and also Dec. 6, 7; 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Dec. 8; and 2:30 p.m Sunday and Dec. 9.
Where: The Youngstown Playhouse, off Glenwood Avenue
Tickets: $15 ($12 for senior citizens and students. Call 330-788-8739 or go to theyoungstownplayhouse.com.
“It is a feel-good musical,” said Downie. “It doesn’t have a message. It’s just fun, You are going to laugh and want to dance. It has familiar songs, and you’re going to walk away feeling good. In this day and age, we need a feel-good musical.”
Downie acknowledged that the unprecedented ticket sales add pressure to her job, but she knows audiences will love it.
“I have the most fantastic cast you’d ever want,” she said. “Finding the right cast is the biggest job of the director, and I know I did that. They are having fun, and when the cast has fun with the material, the audiences have fun.”
Portraying harried mother (and former musical performer) Donna Sheridan is Lois A. Schneider, with Tina Cummings and Jill Cataldi playing her former backup singers.
Cortney McKay plays Sophie, Donna’s engaged daughter, and Ashley Milligan Smith and Natalie Kovacs play her young confidantes.
Johnny George portrays Sophie’s boyfriend, Sky, and John R. Monroe and Christopher Wilson play Sky’s buddies at the local taverna.
Alan McCreary, Robert J. Kozar and Christopher Fidram fill the roles of Sophie’s three prospective fathers.
The show marks Kozar’s return to the Playhouse after about 20 years. “He was a major actor here, and we are thrilled to have him come back,” said Downie.
The ensemble members are Joe Malys (who also appears as Father Alexandrios), Mary Bonamase, Cheyenne Rose Carr, Patricia Carr, Jessie Cummings, Sam Early, Cecilia George, Allyson Kremm, Emily McConnell, Anna Mshar, David R. Schneider, Cassandra Smith, Anne Sopher, Kyla Teeters, Aiden Tighe and John Webber.
J.E. Ballantyne Jr. is stage manager. Matthew White is music director and designed the sets, with Ellen Licitra providing the lighting and Therese Pitzulo creating the costumes.
Johnny Pecano serves as technical coordinator.