‘Mamma Mia!’: ABBA with heart

Jim Lowe / Staff photo

Jim Lowe / Staff photo

By Jim Lowe

“Mamma Mia!” the Broadway smash hit based on the music of ABBA, might have been just another jukebox musical — but it’s much more than that.

“For example, the beginning, like so many Broadway musicals, could have been a huge production number — and (director) Phyllida Lloyd said no, this is a story about a girl trying to figure out who she is,” explained Carol Dunne, who is directing the Northern Stage production.

“Sophie has a wild-child mother, and she’s trying to find a more stable, deeper foundation for life, and she thinks it’s through marriage at a very young age. Start with that girl on a bare stage mailing three letters — that’s a little bit revolutionary,” Dunne said in a recent interview between rehearsals.

“This is actually a really smart play about people who love each other.”

Northern Stage, the Upper Valley regional professional theater, will present “Mamma Mia!” April 19-May 21 at the Barrette Center in White River Junction. (More than 70 percent of tickets are already sold.)

In 1999, the music of the Swedish pop group ABBA was adapted into “Mamma Mia!” by Catherine Johnson, with music and lyrics by Benny Anderson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, plus some songs by Stig Anderson. Long runs on London’s West End and Broadway were followed with tours worldwide. A film of the same title was released in 2008, starring Meryl Streep, becoming the highest-grossing film in the United Kingdom that year.

On the Greek island of Kalokairi, 20-year-old Sophie is preparing to marry her fiancé, Sky. She wants her father to walk her down the aisle, but she doesn’t know who he his. Discovering her mother Donna’s old diary, she identifies the three possibilities — and invites them all.

Of course, mayhem ensues, all sorts of delicious fun, and the required happy ending — but not the one you expected.

“It was originally directed by one of the great Shakespearean directors (Lloyd),” Dunne, Northern Stage’s artistic director, said. “The whole reason this worked better than your average jukebox musical is that it actually has a heart, it actually has truth, it has a mother and a daughter — and sort of a life journey.

“But, what the music does to audiences is absolutely predictable — you put on ‘Waterloo’ and you start moving!” Dunne said.

And, though the music comes from a couple generations ago, it is proving a hit with young cast members too.

“They love this music,” said Eric Bunge, Northern Stage’s managing director, playing one of the “fathers.”

“When it first came out, these kids were youngish,” he said. “One who I was riding with said, ‘I listened to this constantly with my parents when “Mamma Mia!” first came out.’ It was probably his parents’ parents who first knew ABBA.”

The challenge in producing this musical is that it often isn’t taken seriously, thought of as trite.

“What I do as a director is always focus on the story, the relationships, and what the characters want,” Dunne said. “I even had to pull some people back from what I think is a little bit of overdoing, overlanding jokes, to ‘Wait a minute, what do you actually want to say to the person across the stage from you?’”

In fact, this play is well written.

“It comes across as a light confection, but as I’m staging the scenes, there’s nuance in the scenes, there’s nuance in the characters — and that goes back to the original producer hiring Phillyda Lloyd to direct this,” Dunne said. “They focused on the story.”

Dunne, middle aged with a 16-year-old daughter, easily relates to the story.

“All of the actors working on this can understand this feeling of loss, with your children getting older,” she said. “This brings back past loves for everyone.”

Bunge agrees, since he too has daughters, one nearly 21, the other 17.

“It’s very serious to me,” he said.

“I’ve been desperate to direct this — but I struggled with wanting to be in it,” Dunne said. “But I loved the piece so much that I need to direct it. I’m passionate about it.”

The production is recommended for ages 10 and older for subject matter. A complimentary post-show reception with the cast follows the opening night performance April 22. An optional post-show conversation with the company follows the evening performance April 29.

Northern Stage

Northern Stage presents “Mamma Mia!” based on the music of ABBA, April 19-May 21 at the Barrette Center, 7 Gates St. in White River Junction. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays; plus 2 p.m. matinees Thursdays and Saturdays, April 27-May 20. Tickets are $30-$55, $15 for students; call 802-296-7000, or go online to northernstage.org.