TRAVERSE CITY — The theater darkens, the curtains rise and lights illuminating the Old Town Playhouse stage dance in step with harmonic singing.
“Mamma Mia” makes its Traverse City debut Sept. 14 at the theater under the direction of Melissa May.
The jukebox musical opens a new Playhouse season and follows the story of a mother and daughter — Donna and Sophie — in the days approaching Sophie’s wedding. Sophie, at 20 years old, is desperate to find her father to walk her down the aisle, but her mother’s diary is the only clue as to who that man could be.
“It’s a beautiful story about a daughter trying to find herself — find her father,” May said. “It’s a great big singing show — and it’s a lot different from what we’ve had at the Playhouse in the last few years.”
Much of that comes through in the music — “Mamma Mia” flows from scene to scene on the beat of several classic ABBA songs.
“The musical numbers tell the story just as much as the dialogue,” May said. “There’s a story being told through all of those movements.”
The show is May’s directorial debut, but she worked as a Playhouse choreographer for several recent shows.
She was eager to bring that background to the dance-heavy “Mamma Mia,” though at first hesitated to take the helm.
“My husband said, ‘There’s no one else in this town who could do a better job,’” May said. "The Old Town Playhouse (board) felt the same way, and here we are.
“I’m mostly excited to make my debut with a show close to my heart. It’s been a whirlwind of a ride.”
The show features several dance and musical numbers and runs about two hours. May’s been working with the 25-member cast — a nice mix of Playhouse regulars and bright new faces, she says — since July.
“Seeing how they interpret the characters is really interesting — changing the empahsis on a single word can really change a line,” May said. “We try to make every rehearsal fun, because if it’s not fun, why do it?
“It’s called a play and we’re here to play — to have fun and tell a story.”
Bringing “Mamma Mia” to northern Michigan took a battle.
Old Town Playhouse Executive Director Phil Murphy worked to get the rights to the show for more than 10 years. He found an early in to those rights thanks to a connection at Music Theatre International.
“Mamma Mia” is still touring, which ties up its release to small theaters.
“There’s a lag between Broadway, national tours and then community theaters having access,” Murphy said.
It means the Playhouse is one of the first in Michigan to show the play. Murphy’s proud of the victory — for his audiences and himself.
“Truth be told, I’m a closet opera fan. I grew up in that era,” he said. “And people have been asking for this show for ages. There’s a lot of excitement.”
Tickets for the show are $15-$28 at mynorthtickets.com and are expected to sell quickly.
“Because of the name ‘Mamma Mia,’ it’ll do well — but I’m hoping the integrity of our show draws people, too,” May said. “I want this to be our own — the Old Town Playhouse version of ‘Mamma Mia.’
“I hope people get the optimism and joy of the show and just want to come back for more.”
Mark your calendar
“Mamma Mia” debuts at the Old Town Playhouse, 148 E. Eighth St., Traverse City, at 7:30 p.m. Sept 14. Other showings: Sept. 15, 20-22 and 27-29 and Oct. 4-6 and 11-13.