HUNTINGTON - Get whisked away to the Greek isles at the beautiful Ritter Park Amphitheater as HART in the Park dials up two big weekends of the disco-fueled romantic comedy "Mamma Mia!"
Based on the hit, sing-along songs of the pop group ABBA, "Mamma Mia!" tells the story about a mother, her daughter who is getting married, three possible fathers and a trip down the aisle. Such tunes featured are "Dancing Queen," "Take a Chance on Me," "The Winner Takes it All," "SOS" and many others.
Produced in conjunction with the Greater Huntington Park and Recreation District, "Mamma Mia!" runs Friday through Sunday, June 14-16 and Friday through Sunday, June 21-23. Tickets go on sale at 6 p.m., gates at 7 p.m., pre-show at 7:30 p.m. and the main show at 8:30 p.m.
Tickets are $15, $12 for seniors (ages 60 and up) $12 for children (2 to 12) and $10 for groups of 10 or more. Picnics are allowed but food and adult beverage vendors will be available from a number of local vendors.
Directed by Mary and Tommy Smirl, the show stars Lara Donahoe as the mom, Donna Sheridan; and Rileigh Smirl as the daughter, Sophie Sheridan; Cindy Westbrook as Rosie; and Jane Modlin as Tanya; Christian Punzalan as Sam Carmichael; Travis Garnes as Bill Austin; Andrew Potter as Harry Bright; Hollyn Tao as Lisa; Thailei Bruton as Ali; Parker Runyon as Sky; Nathan Wallis as Pepper; and Spencer Nicholas as Eddie.
HART in the Park is the first theater in the Tri-State to get a crack at performing "Mamma Mia!," the ninth-longest-running show on Broadway that ended a 14-year run in 2015.
Since its 1999 debut, "Mamma Mia!" grossed $2 billion worldwide with more than 60 million seeing the theatrical version. The show also spawned a hit 2008 summer film starring Meryl Streep, Colin Firth and Pierce Brosnan.
Regionally, Charleston Light Opera Guild (CLOG) and Aracoma Story (which has its final "Mamma Mia!" performance this weekend) both have put up the show, which was just released this past year to community theater.
Assistant director Levi Kelley, who is also directing the July pre-show, "Frozen, Jr.," went to Aracoma Story at Chief Logan State Park to support the Southern West Virginia troupe and to see the show last week.
"I think people love that movie, so the crowd down there was wild for it," Kelley said. "They loved it, and I am expecting the same thing down here. When we showed the movie the other night it rained all day and there were still 50 people here. It's a sing-along show and it is a party show. It's just infectious. You can't help it. We have seen it hundreds of times now, and still last night Mary and I are just jamming to 'Super Trooper.'"
Tommy and Mary Smirl, the couple who founded HART in the Park and the Choose Joy Players, and who are also co-directing the show, have been anxiously awaiting its release to regional theater.
"We had a bucket-list idea from many years ago that we were going to do this show. I was going to be Donna and Tommy was going to be Sam and Clint McElroy was going to be Harry," Mary said. "When the rights became available we were at dinner with Sydnee and Justin and they bought the rights for us. They said, 'It is happening.' We said, 'Thank you so much for getting the rights, but we are way too old for the roles,' but we really wanted to do it."
While the Smirls may not be on the stage for this one - they are getting to work with their youngest, talent-laden daughter, Rileigh. She is a Yeager Scholar at Marshall who said it has been a blast to return to stage as part of such a fun show that is centered on family.
"It has been about two years since I had done theater. I wanted to get back into it because I missed it and when they do shows without me, it is kind of like I never see them in the evening. I moved back for the semester and they are gone all night, but when we are all doing it together, we are staying up late working on costumes and running numbers and talking about things at home. It is really cool to do a show about family with family."
Like many fans of the show, she knows it well from the film version that has been a family favorite.
"I remember watching the movie for the first time - and I was probably too young to be watching this movie for the first time - I was like 7 when it came out. I remember loving it and growing up and watching it over and over again," Rileigh said. "It is a surreal experience to be doing a show you have seen so many times and being a character you have seen since you are a little girl and being like, 'Oh my God, she is so beautiful and I want to be her,' and then you are her. It has been a great experience watching everyone learn all of the songs and learning all of the dances and it is one of those shows where everyone is having a lot of fun doing it."
Well-known local singer and music teacher Lara Donohoe said she feels like there's an extra layer of excitement out there to see the show which is a rare, more adult-themed show for HART in the Park.
"I remember when I was in 'Mary Poppins,' I thought everyone would want to see 'Mary Poppins.' A lot of people did, and many people came to see 'Shrek,' but everybody I mention this to, even people who don't normally come to theater, have told me they want to see this," Donohoe said. "They are so excited. Everybody loves ABBA. Everybody loves dancing. It's innate."
Donohoe, who was introduced to ABBA during family reunions at Tygart Lake back in the day, said as a music teacher she has seen first-hand how the music of the Swedish supergroup is timeless and cuts across all generations.
"It's catchy, it's repetitive - the melodies are easy to retain, the chord structure is very basic, but it is fun. They are all danceable and they are all singable - 'Mamma Mia, here I go again' and 'Dancing Queen.' Those lyrics all have a great catch phrase. Who doesn't love that?" Donohoe said. "We did that a couple years ago at my school with third and fifth grade, and oh my lord they loved it. I also think some of their songs really tell some beautiful stories. There is one song called 'Slipping Through My Fingers' that most people may not know but people are going to love it."
To pull off all of the intricate harmonies and infectious dance music of ABBA is not easy. To help replicate the music prowess of the group, HART in the Park's musical director, Jennifer Londeree, oversees a three-keyboard-strong rock band and a mostly backstage ensemble giving more vocal power to the eight actors who propel the show.
"As you know, a lot of these harmonies, because ABBA were geniuses, are very intricate, and our wonderful musical director Jennifer Londeree was so amazing getting the cast to get these harmonies just right," Kelley said. "They sound so incredible. I think there are two other characters aside from the real characters in the show - the vocals is a character in itself, and the lights. There is backup in every single song. When the ensemble is not on stage they are still backstage singing."
"When you hear them singing, you just hear it swell in," Tommy added.
Those vocals wash out through the speakers above a set designed by Corey Jones that features a beautifully vibrant seascape backdrop painted by WVU art student Kathleen Korstanje. It hangs between a wrap-around island cobblestone village set of shops built by HART in the Park's dynamic duo of Dave Owens and John McCormick.
Creating movement both on stage and out in the audience is head choreographer, Tiffany Carroll. She also was the choreographer for "Shrek: The Musical" last season.
"It is definitely party vibes," said Tiffany Carroll. "A lot of shows that I do are different styles within different numbers, but this one the theme of the whole show is a party vibe and fun dances. I don't mean that party meaning easy; it is a lot of hard choreography. We have had to do a lot more choreography rehearsals and have been here a lot of Saturdays because there is a lot of dance."
Mary Smirl said Carroll has worked out some really neat interactive elements as well. During the song "Money, Money, Money," street vendors walk through the crowd handing out such items as baklava, necklaces, fresh flowers and apples. Toward the show's end, the dance party literally brings together the audience and actors as the party ramps up. Some Bob Fosse moves are incorporated into the scene as vendors are interacting with the front rows of the audience.
"We hope that the crowd will jump up and dance with us, and at the end of the show we have opportunities to invite them to the stage to dance. The audience plays an important part in our liveliness. We hope that everyone sings and that everyone dances. We know that everyone knows the songs, so sing along. We hope that everyone will join in with us at this party."
If You Go:
WHAT: Huntington Area Regional Theatre HART in the Park and the Greater Huntington Park and Recreation District present the disco-fueled romantic comedy "Mamma Mia!"
WHERE: Ritter Park Amphitheater
WHEN: Friday through Sunday, June 14-16, and Friday through Sunday, June 21-23.
HOURS: Tickets go on sale at 6 p.m., gates at 7 p.m., pre-show at 7:30 p.m. and the main show at 8:30 p.m.
HOW MUCH: Tickets are $15, $12 for seniors (ages 60 and up) $12 for children (2 to 12) and $10 for groups of 10 or more.
PRE-SHOW: Before "Mamma Mia!" there will be preview performances of "Little Mermaid" and "Frozen, Jr." with some of the characters singing a few of the favorites from those shows which will be presented by HART in the Park in July at the Amphitheater. "We will have them preview those shows and we may have one or two people from the community sing too," Tommy Smirl said.
WHAT ELSE: Picnics are allowed but food and adult beverage vendors will be available. Vendors will be Marco's Pizza, Lil Creamer, Abby Shae Bakes (Just July), Scraggle Pop and Just Chillin' Snowballs. The Park District will also be selling popcorn, candy, water, sports drinks, beer both domestics and four different craft beers from Brew Dog, as well as White Claw spiked seltzers.
BEHIND THE SCENES: Tommy and Mary Smirl, co-directors; Levi Kelley is the assistant director; Tiffany Carroll is choreographer; and Jenn Londeree is the music director. Amanda Conley is producer; Miriah Young and Mary Smirl, props; Elaina Hess and Emma Londeree, stage managers; set builders are Dave Owens and John McCormick; set designer and head painter Corey Jones; Kathleen Korstanje, sound engineer; and Kevin Bannon, lighting.
THE BAND: Jennifer Londeree, music director/keyboard; Edward Shaffer, drums; Luke Creasy, bass; Kayla Harmon, keyboard; Eric Akers, keyboard; Salem Carlton, guitar; Andrew Winter, guitar.
ON DECK: The second show of the summer theater season will be "Disney's The Little Mermaid," and an hour-long performance of "Frozen, Jr.," that will run July 12-14, July 19-21 and July 26-28. Those shows will start earlier. Gates open at 6:30 p.m. and the pre-show starts at 7 p.m. and the main show at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $15, $12 for seniors (ages 60 and up) $12 for children (2 to 12) and $10 for groups of 10 or more.
ON THE WEB: Go online at https://www.facebook.com/HARTInThePark/ for more information about HART in the Park, which is in its sixth year of shows at the Ritter Park amphitheater. The group formed up after Huntington Outdoor Theater founders retired after 20 years of summer productions.