“Imagine three grown men in spandex dancing and singing along to ABBA. It’s got to be everyone’s worst nightmare,” said T.J. Mannix, who plays Bill Austen in the Arkansas Repertory Theatre’s upcoming production of Mamma Mia! “But that’s the beauty of this musical — everyone, even the older characters, get to have fun.”
“Mamma Mia!” is an international phenomenon; it has played in more than 50 countries and been translated into 22 languages. Featuring the songs of ABBA and elaborate dance routines, the musical promises feel-good vibes and a classic love story.
Here’s the story line: Sophie, a young woman about to be married, finds out from her mother’s old diary that her father is one of three men. She invites them all to the wedding, hoping she can determine which one is her father. Mannix plays one of three potential fathers. Unfortunately for his character, this involves both the aforementioned spandex and his coming to terms with his perennial singlehood.
“The great thing about this show is that there are two generations going through very similar problems. You’ve got the dads and the Dynamos,” Mannix said. “Each character is facing his or her own problems within the greater storyline.” Young adults on the cusp of commitments are not the only ones who can relate to this play: Parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles will see their relationship struggles mirrored in characters like Austen and Rosie Mulligan (Alison Nusbaum).
Both Bill and Rosie are free spirits who grew up in the 1970s. Bill is a travel writer with no possessions or strings. Rosie, a former singer in the “Dynamos,” runs a feminist press and is confident in all matters aside from those of love. Mannix described the two characters as “in denial. Both characters are like, ‘We’re totally fine being single! Everything’s OK!’ — but really, they’re having to come to terms with many of the same issues that the younger generation is dealing with.”
One of the messages of the musical: You continue to learn about yourself as you grow older.
“This show explores facets of nontraditional relationships. It’s a celebration of family, but one that does not need to be tied to marriage,” Zane Phillips said. Phillips plays Sky, Sophie’s fiance.
What can enthusiastic fans of the film version — or another stage version — gain from watching yet another production of this musical?
“You’re not going to see this version of ‘Mamma Mia!’ on tour,” said marketing director Allyson Pittman Gattin. While many cast members have performed this musical before, they’ve had to approach their roles in a fresh light. According to Nusbaum, director John Miller-Stephany told actors at the auditions to “scrap what you’ve seen happen in this play. It’s going to be a different show.”
Director Miller-Stephany believes in an “original take, but one that still re-evaluates the purpose of each song, each dialogue.” This means that there is room for actors to put their own spin on their roles.
“Even Sarah Daniels,” Nusbaum said, “who has played Sophie before, said that in this production, she is ‘learning a whole new side of Sophie.’ ”
Opening night will include a preshow cocktail dinner and drinks with the director, as well as a selfie station and Loblolly ice cream. There will also be a postshow party with the cast.
“Mamma Mia!” runs Wednesday, March 14, through Sunday, April 15. The cast and crew talk about the play on Thursday, March 15, at the Clinton School of Public Service, noon, free. “Pay Your Age” night is Sunday, March 18, and Sign Interpreter Night is Wednesday, March 28. “Sing-a-long Night” is Thursday, April 12. For tickets and more info, see therep.org/attend.