CRT’s ‘Mamma Mia!’ Filled with Heart and Hit Songs

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The Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s Nutmeg Summer Series will open June 6 with the musical “Mamma Mia!” – featuring songs by the Swedish pop/dance group ABBA.

One of the most popular productions worldwide, “Mamma Mia!” ran on Broadway for 14 years and is the ninth longest running show of all time in New York, according to Playbill. It has been seen by more than 60 million people in more than 50 countries on all six continents, and translated into 26 languages.

The story centers on the eve of the character Sophie’s wedding, when she reads her mother’s diary only to discover that the father she has never met could be one of three men. The wedding invitation brings Sophie’s three putative dads to the Greek Isles in search of the life that could have been with Sophie’s mother Donna.

ABBA’s energetic music is central to the popularity of the show, which takes its name from a track on the group’s eponymous 1976 second album and has 11 of their chart hits among the 22 songs in the production, including the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame band’s No. 1 song, “Dancing Queen.”

“Mamma Mia!” is regarded as a jukebox musical – a film or stage show that features the songs of a popular band – and the show is generally considered to have launched the surge of the genre after its opening on Broadway in 2001. Previously, it had had a successful run in London’s West End, where it was first performed in 1999.

Two early jukebox stage musicals in the mid-1970s were “The Night That Made America Famous,” based on the music of storyteller Harry Chapin, and “Beatlemania,” the musical revue of The Beatles. These were followed in 1984 by “Leader of the Pack,” with the music of the 1960s Brill Building pop songwriting team of Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry (“Be My Baby,” “Chapel of Love”), and in 1995 by “Smokey Joe’s Café,” the music of 1950s hit makers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller (“Hound Dog,” “Yakety Yak”). In the 21st century, more than 85 jukebox musicals have opened on Broadway, showcasing the music of artists such as Hank Williams, Janis Joplin, The Four Seasons, Bob Dylan, Carole King, David Bowie, and Frank Sinatra. Last year, nine new jukebox musicals opened on Broadway, including “The Cher Show” and “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations.”

Terrence Mann, the Broadway veteran who is artistic director of the Nutmeg Summer and is directing CRT’s “Mamma Mia!” isn’t comfortable with the label: “To me, when you say a jukebox musical, it’s almost pejorative, like you’re dissing it,” he says. “The music came out of source material that’s already been written. Then they tried to put a book, a libretto around all these songs and have it make sense. Sometimes it succeeds and sometimes they don’t succeed. I think we have to figure out maybe a different way to describe musicals that have come along and certainly come out of recorded sources music, a la jukebox.”

Mann notes that after the arrival of broadcast radio in the early 20th century, popular music heard on the airwaves was most often songs that originated from stage and film productions written by Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, or Rogers and Hammerstein, the creators of what became known as the Great American Songbook. In the mid-1950s, the emergence of rock ‘n’ roll changed the music industry, as it took over as the major genre on the pop music charts. Film soundtracks continue on the hit lists with “The Sound of Music,” ranked at No. 2 on the Billboard all-time album Top 200 chart, and “Frozen” at No. 17.

Mann says “Mamma Mia!” and its soundtrack continues to resonate with audiences.

“The thing about ‘Mamma Mia!’, which I think separates it from all others, is that you know they are winking and nodding at you from the stage when they are going through this book and when they are going to the next song,” he says. “That’s what’s charming and compelling and makes you laugh. And yet it’s still poignant and touching. ABBA won the Eurovision contest in 1974. They wrote great songs that our ears wanted to hear at the time, what we wanted to feel at the time. To be able to be sustained for that long, we just decided they were just that good.”

Jessica Hendy will star as Donna Sheriden. Hendy has appeared on Broadway as Grizabella in both the original production and the 2016 revival of “Cats.” Other Broadway credits include “Aida” and “Amour.” She also appeared in the National Tour of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” Hendy will be making her CRT debut.

Jennifer Cody will star as Rosie. She previously appeared onstage at Connecticut Repertory Theatre as Dotty Otley in “Noises Off.” Cody appeared as Rumpleteazer in the original Broadway production of “Cats” and as Cha-Cha Di Gregorio in the revival of “Grease,” and reprised these roles for the National Tours of both shows. Other Broadway credits include “Beauty and the Beast,” “Seussical,” “Urinetown,” “The Pajama Game,” and “Shrek the Musical.” Cody has also appeared on TV in “Law and Order” and “Blue Bloods,” and has contributed voice work to Disney’s “Princess and the Frog” and others.

Lauren Blackman will star as Tanya. Blackman most recently appeared in “Marie, Still Dancing” in Seattle. Her Broadway credits include “Anastasia.” Off-Broadway credits include “Promises, Promises,” and “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” Prior CRT roles include the world premiere of “Anastasia” at Hartford Stage. Blackman will be making her CRT debut.

Bradley Dean will star as Sam Carmichael. Dean most recently appeared in the National Tour of “Bat Out of Hell,” and on Broadway as Larry Murphy in “Dear Evan Hansen” and “The Last Ship.” He appeared as Che in the National Tour of “Evita,” and as Sir Dennis Galahad, The Black Knight and Prince Herbert’s Father in both the original Broadway production and the National Tour of “Spamalot.” Other Broadway credits include “Company,” “A Little Night Music,” and “Doctor Zhivago.” Dean will be making his CRT debut.

The widespread audience demand for “Mamma Mia!” is evident in the number of community and regional productions scheduled this year. In addition to the CRT production, there are 33 community or regional theater performances of “Mamma Mia!” set until the end of 2019 in the northeast, from Franklin, New Hampshire, to Hoboken, New Jersey.

Demand for ABBA also resonates. In early 2018, there were news reports that the group had recorded two new songs titled “I Still Have Faith in You” and “Don’t Shut Me Down.” Last fall, Benny Andersson said in an interview that a hologram tour is being planned for some time in 2019 or 2020. A hologram of ABBA’s four members will perform its hit songs, appearing as they did in the 1970s, with live performers on stage.

CRT’s Nutmeg Summer Theatre production of “Mamma Mia!” will be presented at the Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre from June 6 through June 22. A new schedule of starting times is in place this season. Evening performances start at 7 p.m. on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, and at 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Matinee performances start at 2 p.m. on Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays. For more information, go to crt.uconn.edu.