The Tuscaloosa Theater Releases “Mamma Mia!” from ABBA! after the pandemic break


Stephen Tyler Davis’ first directing job for the Tuscaloosa Theater, the July 2019 revisit to “Grease,” marked a success for the company, not only via butt rubrics in seats, but also in goodwill and the thrills of the cast and the public.

The summer-loving team planned to roll again, like greased lightning, next year. Davis, the one they wanted, would return from New York, where he had been working, living, studying — earning his master’s degree in fine theater arts at Sarah Lawrence College, and later joining her faculty — since graduating from the University of Alabama Theater and Dance Department in 2007.

For this next round, Davis had to devote himself desperately to another show of pop-rock nostalgia from an earlier era, the “Mamma Mia!” based on ABBA! But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, postponement became the name of the game.

“Yeah, we were all ready to get the gang together,” he said, “and then the world shut down.”

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Now three years after “Grease,” after more than two years of anticipation, Theater Tuscaloosa turns its super troupers to the stage at the Bean-Brown Theater for its “Mamma Mia!” finally realized.

The romantic comedy was conceived by British playwright Catherine Johnson, built around the Swedish pop phenomenon’s songs, most of them written by the band’s B-males, Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus.

Many of their hits were written and mostly sung by the two Aces, their respective former life partners Anna-Frid Lyngstad and Agnetha Fältskog. Together, as an acronym unit, this quartet became Sweden’s first winners of the Eurovision Song Contest in 1974, with the bouncy “Waterloo” – chosen as the contest’s best song of its first 50 years, in a celebration in 2005 – and danced to that success. , bursting onto the global charts for the next decade.

Each of their records sold at platinum status or higher, for an estimated 385 million worldwide, but it was the “ABBA Gold: Greatest Hits” collection, released in 1992, that became ubiquitous, selling six times platinum. in the United States only. Its sales exceeded 30 million, making it the 15th best-selling record of all time. Worldwide, ABBA ranks third in most singles sold – 11 million, among 25 Top 10 hits, including nine No. 1s – behind The Beatles and Queen.

Left to right: Brandy M. Johnson, Jamie Shannon Ferguson Ertle and Lindsey Jones, in the Theater Tuscaloosa production

Although breaking up is never easy, we know the group broke up in 1982, personally and professionally, although the men continued to write together, while the women pursued solo singing careers. The four reunited again in 2018 to record new songs, and in May this year announced ABBA Voyage, a virtual concert series featuring a 10-piece band performing with digitally created avatars of the band such that he appeared at his peak. . A new album, “Voyage”, is due out in November.

ABBA’s songs have remained alive well beyond the band’s run, through oldie stations, tribute bands, major covers, and film placements such as “Muriel’s Wedding” and “Priscilla – Queen Of The Desert”.

Keep ABBA golden

The savvy continued marketing and repackaging that made ABBA Golden hit another high when producer Judy Craymer, after meeting the men while working with lyricist Tim Rice on the musical “Chess,” commissioned British playwright Johnson to create a book around the songs.

The original London production opened in 1999, where it is the sixth longest-running show in West End history. “Mom Mia! opened on Broadway in 2001 and ran for 14 years, becoming the ninth-longest-running Broadway show. Including international tours, more than 65 million people saw the show live, raising more than $4 billion in ticket sales.

A 2008 film adaptation, starring Meryl Streep, Colin Firth, Pierce Brosnan, Amanda Seyfried, Christine Baranski, Stellan Skarsgård and Julie Walters, grossed over $612 million worldwide, leading to the 2018 sequel, ” Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again,” which grossed over $400 million.

Johnson’s setting is a trip to a Greek island, where Sophie (Reagan Branch, in the Theater Tuscaloosa production), a young woman about to be married to Sky (Sam Allen), visits her mother, Donna (Jamie Shannon Ferguson Ertle). Sophie had recently read Donna’s diary, recounting a series of affairs years ago with three men, each of whom may be Sophie’s biological father.

Reagan Branch (left) and Sam Allen in Theater Tuscaloosa's production of

Donna owns and operates a restaurant on the island, although she and two of her friends – Rosie, played by Brandy Johnson, and Tanya, played by Lindsey Jones – used to perform as a singing trio, which encourages bursting moments of melody. Unbeknownst to Donna, Sophie has invited the three potential dads, Sam (Steven Yates), Bill (Bradley Logan) and Harry (John Walker), in hopes of figuring out what might lead her down the aisle.

Sweet Home Alabama

It’s been a crazy world for Davis since 2019. Earlier this year, Huntsville’s Fantasy Playhouse Children’s Theater and Academy hired him as their new artistic director, so he’ll be returning to the town he grew up in. It starts August 1, but so far this summer he’s spent more time in Tuscaloosa, working on this 31-actor show, not including the band and choir (singers offstage).

“I kind of dumped a bunch of stuff in my parents’ garage. I bought a new house, but I haven’t even moved in yet,” he said.

During the shutdown phases of the pandemic, he worked, partially remotely, both in Alabama and New York, then did another full year at Sarah Lawrence.

“And I was like, you know what, Alabama, I’m ready to go home,” he said, missing food, friends and family. Huntsville’s company is the one he grew up playing with, and it’s undergoing major expansion, including a new multi-million dollar facility.

“I have new nieces and my grandmother, who is like my best friend, is getting older, so you know what? I’m ready to settle down, put down roots,” he said.

Much of the “Grease” crew returns, including Davis’s old friend and fellow UA graduate Lindsay Trockler Soha as choreographer, with Leslie Poss once again as musical director, Erin Hisey updating the lights again and Ava Kuchera Buchanan back to work the behind-the-scenes hair and makeup magic, as the cast must at times be shown as contemporary, and at other times reveling in youthful styles.

Top row from left: Steven Yates and John Walker;  Bottom row: Bradley Logan and Reagan Branch;  in the Tuscaloosa Theater production of

“Like the second weekend of ‘Grease,’ we realized how much fun we had together, and that doesn’t always happen when you’re in the middle of artistic collaborations,” Davis said.

“(Executive producer Tina F. Turley) said to me, ‘It feels good. We’re doing it again.’ Basically, we decided in the hall of Shelton State that we were going to do it, and that’s why it’s been suspended, kind of a holy summer, wherever it falls on my schedule.”

Although some of the “Mamma Mia!” actors had also worked in “Grease”, including Walker, Meredith Vaughn, Colton Crowe, Cole Cabiness and Audrey-Reagan Thompson, most of these performers were new to Davis. He had seen Jones in “Bright Star” with The Actor’s Charitable Theater of Tuscaloosa the previous year, however, and remembered her as “bright”.

“The world needs this injection of joy right now,” Jones said, “and ‘Mamma Mia!’ is just fun, it’s not deep.”

Logan has become a regular with the company, from “A Christmas Carol” to “Once Upon a Mattress” and, most recently, the door-slamming prank “Girls’ Weekend.”

“This whole show is about family and finding your family,” he said. “Coming back to the theater after all, and being away from it, especially here at the Tuscaloosa Theater, because it’s like a family here, coming back and seeing faces, and adding faces to our family, it’s really refreshing.”

Ertle was recently paired with Logan in the comedy “Girls’ Weekend,” but she’s thriving in song, having studied musical theater at Mississippi College and earning her master’s degree in fine arts at Boston Conservatory in Berklee.

“When there’s a music audition, I’m there and just crossing my fingers hoping to get something,” she said.

Donna, whether with her former singing partners, potential fathers, her daughter, or others in the company, is central to many scenes and songs, including some top-rated hits such as “Dancing Queen,” “SOS”, the song title. Ertle also takes on a pair of heartbreakers from ABBA’s disbanding stages, “The Winner Takes It All” and “One of Us”.

Flashy fun

Despite the high-pop sheen often associated with ABBA, emotional layers show through. It may start with the rebound of ‘Honey Honey’, romp on ‘Will You’ and ‘Dancing Queen’, but then it dips to deal with heartache, before bouncing back to resolution and spandex partying. .

“It’s this blending of all these different experiences and all these different generations, all on a soundtrack from another era,” Davis said. “I feel like this is the show where everyone has some kind of a path, like more than anything else I’ve ever worked on, really.

Reagan Branch (left) and Jamie Shannon Ferguson Ertle in Theater Tuscaloosa's production of

“It’s like a classic” don’t reinvent the wheel; give people what they want”, and I feel like that’s really where we landed. You know, film is a bit different in that it can do more like cinematic things and flashy. But I like to think we added our own little layer of flashy fun.

Excitement is running high, said Adam Miller, the company’s general manager, so the Tuscaloosa Theater has added a Tuesday night performance to meet demand. There may be a few spots left for the weekend shows, he said, but patrons should check in soon.

“Mamma Mia” dates and tickets

“Mom Mia! will offer its final “pay what you can” dress rehearsal, benefiting the Charlie Dennis Memorial Scholarship, at 7:30 p.m. Thursday. The race starts at 7.30pm on Friday, with evening performances also on Saturday, Tuesday and July 21 and 22. Matinees at 2 p.m. will take place on Sunday and July 20, 23 and 24.

All will take place at the Bean-Brown Theater, the home of the Tuscaloosa Theater at Shelton State Community College, 9500 Old Greensboro Road. Tickets are $24 general, $20 for seniors and military, and $16 for students and children. For more information, call 205-391-2277 or visit www.theatretusc.com.

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