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‘Mamma Mia!’ packed with romance, music and fun

By Lori Gilbert
Record Staff Writer 

She’s been rehearsing for six weeks to play the role of Donna, the mother of the bride in the musical comedy “Mamma Mia!” and Rhonda Cummings still loves the music.

“I was an ABBA fan, am an ABBA fan, but I just said to (musical director) John Robinson, ‘It’s so strange. We’re just about to open and I’m not sick of any of these songs,’ ” Cummings said. “Usually when you do a musical, some song will start to bug you or you’ll start with one favorite song and then move on to another favorite song. I’m not sick of any of these songs.”

That’s kind of the international attitude toward ABBA, the Swedish pop group that rose to fame beginning in 1976 and hasn’t performed together since 1982 but still gets radio play, has spawned countless tribute bands and has inspired “Mamma Mia!” the musical that Stockton Civic Theater opens tonight with a second preview show before Friday’s opening.

“It’s a great jukebox musical of great music that’s very iconic for people and makes you feel really well,” director James Reed said. “The story line has something everyone can connect with: mother-daughter relationships, a wedding, trying to figure out family, what defines a family, the relationship between (the engaged) Sky and Sophie and their love story, friendships, Donna and her two friends, Sophie and her friends, how do I fit in with this group?”

That’s a lot to cover, but “Mamma Mia!” tackles it through a romantic story on a Greek island. Sophie is about to marry Sky and wants her father to walk her down the aisle, but she doesn’t know who her father is. Donna, her mother, has never identified him. Sophie believes it could be one of three former beaus Donna wrote about in her diary, and Sophie writes and invites each to the wedding. They arrive as do Donna’s best friends, Tanya and Rosie, who collectively performed together as Donna and the Dynamos.

The music of ABBA backs the enterprise.

“They have tried to take a body of work and turn it into one story line that I think is extremely clever,” said Dawn Coyan, who plays Tanya. “By setting it on a Greek island around a wedding, it fits their style and music pretty well. It’s a fun mix of poignancy and toughness.”

It’s a show that brought Cummings back to Stockton Civic Theater after 17 years, during which she raised two daughters and started her own dance studio.
The show also marks the return of Debbie Robinson, who said the theater was a second home for her beginning in the late 1980s until her husband was transferred in the early 1990s. They returned to the area four years ago, but this is her first show at SCT.

“I love the music,” said Robinson, 64. “I grew up in the late ’60s and early ’70s. I liked ABBA. I loved the movie and I love to travel. I was a travel agent and Greece is a place I really enjoy. The whole story spoke to me. I thought as long as (Reed) felt I wasn’t too old, I’d give it a shot.”

She, Coyan and Cummings were the last trio to audition together and “we all looked at each other and it was unspoken, but we knew it would be the three of us,” Robinson said. “We had a connection.”

The three stage friends have become true friends during the rehearsal process.

“We all have a good sense of humor,” Cummings said. “We don’t take ourselves too seriously but we take the work seriously.”

Coyan does, because as the drama teacher at Manteca High School, she’s modeling for her students how to act by playing a woman nothing like her.

“It’s fun to be the flirty one and get away with it and not care what anybody else thinks about you,” Coyan said.

And Cummings isn’t like Donna, but she’s relishing the role.

“At my age, I get to be the girl,” laughs Cummings, 52. “I don’t know the last time I was the girl. Ashlyn Kelley plays my beautiful daughter, but she’s hooked up. She has a fiancé. I get to be the one they wonder, ‘will she get together or not.’ ”

Besides that, she and her Dynamos are the ones “who get to be crazy and goofy and silly and jump on beds,” Cummings said. “They sing in hair dryers at me. We’re rocking spandex, and no one is running away in horror.”

Yep, spandex is back, as is the whole ABBA style. Reed and assistant director Sarah Spenker wanted the show to have a concert feel.

In addition to the over-the-top costumes, the band — four keyboards, two electric guitars, electric bass and percussion — is on stage throughout and the lights shine during musical numbers as they would on a concert stage.

“It’s like you’re at an ABBA concert and we’re doing a musical while you’re there,” Reed said. “We want you to come to the concert and have fun.”

Contact reporter Lori Gilbert at (209) 546-8284 or lgilbert@recordnet.com. Follow her on Twitter @lorigrecord.
Tags: mammia mia, stockton civic, theatre
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