Lisa Fox decided she just wanted to have some fun this summer.
“Usually, I use the summer months to go some place to study,” said Fox, who has served as the guest director at the Sooner Theater in Norman for the past 13 seasons, in addition to working with such major regional companies as Music Theater of Wichita.
“But I got this call from Jay (Krottinger, Theatre Tulsa’s interim artistic director), who asked if I would be interested in working with the company,” she said. “And the show he was offering just sounded like a whole lot of fun.”
That show is “Mamma Mia!”, the long-running musical that linked together a couple of dozen songs by Swedish pop band ABBA into a tale about a young woman who wants to learn which of her mother’s three former paramours is her actual father, so she may be properly escorted down the aisle at her upcoming wedding.
The show, written by Catherine Johnson, ran for 14 years on Broadway and is currently the ninth longest-running show in Broadway history. It would also spawn two film versions, which star Meryl Streep.
“The fact that it’s such a well-known show actually makes my work just a tiny bit easier,” Fox said. “Because people are so familiar with this story and these songs, you know they are going to want to see the show they know.
“So there’s not any reason to try to re-imagine ‘Mamma Mia!,” she said. “What you do need to do, however, is make sure everyone involved is performing at their highest level because that’s also something the audiences are expecting to see.”
Which means that, while “Mamma Mia!” may be about as frothy a musical comedy as can be imagined outside of something in which P.G. Wodehouse had a hand, performing this show is no easy task.
“The music is pitched pretty high,” said Machele Miller Dill, the show’s musical director. “Our tenors are pretty much screaming at the top of their lungs on some of these songs. And the women have to sing in a true soprano range.
“At the same time, it has to sound conversational because a lot of the show’s dialogue is contained in the lyrics of the songs,” she said. “On top of everything else, this is also very much a dance show. So people are having to sing these eight-part harmonies while executing some pretty demanding dance moves. Fortunately, we have a great cast, and Lisa has been able to create an atmosphere that encourages them to really test themselves, to push their abilities a bit more.”
Theatre Tulsa’s cast features Ashlee Osborn as Donna, who has made a life for herself and her daughter, Sophie, by running a taverna on a small Greek island.
But the upcoming wedding between Sophie, played by Brenna D’Onofrio, and Sky (Peter Lee) threatens to upend this Ionian idyll as Sophie wants to determine the identity of her father from among the three men with whom her mother dallied one long-ago summer.
Soon, the island is teeming old acquaintances, from Donna’s former band mates Tanya (Kristin Robert) and Rosie (Kristen Simpson), as well as three potentials of father material — Sam (Chris Williams), Bill (Todd Malicoate) and Harry (Steven Osborn).
“For me, it’s a story about how you really can’t look to the past or imagine what the future will be to find out who you are,” Fox said. “What’s truly important is right now, this present moment in which we find ourselves and making the most of that with the people that we love.”
Dill said the decision by the show’s creators to set the story on an island in the middle of the Aegean Sea is probably one reason why “Mamma Mia!” has been such a success.
“It makes the show itself feel like you’re on vacation,” she said. “I don’t think it would have quite the same atmosphere if it had been set anywhere else. And ABBA’s music is like a party all by itself.”