“Mamma Mia!” To Bring Needed Joy, Relief, Humor to Moline’s Music Guild
For its first musical with a live, in-person audience in 19 months, Quad City Music Guild has the ideal show – the breezy, massively popular “Mamma Mia!,” opening Friday at the Prospect Park theater, 1584 34th Ave., Moline.
Directed by Colleen Houlihan, a panoply of ABBA’s hits tell the hilarious story of a young woman’s search for her birth father. This sunny and funny tale unfolds on a Greek island paradise, with a golden jukebox of songs including “Honey, Honey,” “Money, Money, Money,” “Mamma Mia,” “Dancing Queen,” “The Name of The Game,” “SOS,” “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” and many more.
On the fictional Greek island of Kalokairi, 20-year-old Sophie (Olivia Lyman) is preparing to marry her fiancé, Sky (John Whitson). She wants her father to walk her down the aisle but doesn’t know who he is. Sophie discovers her mother’s old diary and finds entries which describe intimate dates with three men — Sam Carmichael (David Miller), Bill Austin (David Baxter) and Harry Bright (Mark McGinn). Sophie believes one of these is her father and, three months before her nuptials, sends each an invitation to her wedding, writing in her mother’s name, Donna (Christina Myatt), without letting her unsuspecting mother know.
Houlihan – who directed 2016’s “Into the Woods” at Music Guild – was forced to postpone the show a full year due to Covid, and in her program note, she wrote: “ABBA is the best quarantine buddy a director could ask for. This musical is on this earth solely to bring joy. And it is 100% the perfect show to reopen Quad City Music Guild to in-person audiences.
“The stage show has been seen by 60 million people worldwide, with productions mounted in more than 50 countries across six continents,” the program says. “It is a silly, raucous, frivolous romp of musical theater. And I mean that in the best way possible.
“I can tell you that Quad City Music Guild’s production is populated by a group of volunteers (cast, staff, and beyond) who exceeded even my wildest imagination,” Houlihan wrote. “This is a group that lives for live theater. They have desperately missed the stage and all of you… and it shows in these performances. We can all use a break these days. For the next two plus hours, please sit back and relax.”
“Mamma Mia!” is especially satisfying for Luke Vermeire, who plays roles on and off stage – set designer and member of the ensemble. This is his second time doing scenic design (his first being 2020’s canceled production of “The Secret Garden”) and he is excited about returning to the stage for the first time since “Annie” (2017).
This is Vermiere’s seventh season with QCMG since his first show, “Mary Poppins.” He’s been involved in many aspects of Guild, including stage crew, outdoor decorating, co-chair in charge of ushers, set design, wig/hair consultant, and has served on play selection committee.
He returned to the Guild stage this past spring for the filmed online cabaret, “On With the Show,” for which Vermiere sang “Get Me to the Church On Time” from “My Fair Lady,” and he liked seeing a number of 2020 cast members from “Secret Garden,” who also performed.
“It was good to see them and it was good just to be back in the space,” he said Monday. “So much backstage stuff had been done since then – painting and like fixing things you walked past every day, but because you were busy doing a show, you never think to do.”
The unique backdrop for the “Mamma Mia” set is made of wire mesh window screen, crumpled up, giving it an appearance like wrinkled aluminum foil. “It’s a good way to use something besides a white scrim, and give a little texture,” Vermeire said. Lighting designers Brittney and Robert Crist hung strands of LED lights that can change colors throughout the show. “It can do all kinds of fun stuff,” Vermeire said, appreciating the fact that the lights and set were designed as one, to be cohesive.
“If I can work with the other creative team, and not just build a cool set and let Robert do his thing – the set pairs with the lights, with the costumes. It all goes together and it’s gonna create a really nice product,” Vermeire said.
He wasn’t the original set designer for the show, either, but was asked during the filming of the cabaret in March (QCMG also filmed “Monty Python’s Spamalot,” which was streamed last month). Vermeire wasn’t a fan of “Mamma Mia” at first, after seeing the 2008 movie and it wasn’t his cup of tea.
“Now, it’s one of those shows you can’t help but enjoy,” he said. “Tastes change and it truly is one of those shows, if you go into it expecting it to just be a fun time, you’ll have fun.”
After a 1999 London premiere, the musical had a 14-year run on Broadway, closing in 2015, making it the ninth-longest-running show in Broadway history. An Entertainment Weekly review said: “Perhaps the single most ecstatic musical to open on Broadway since ‘A Chorus Line,’ ‘Mamma Mia!’ leaves you uplifted, enraptured and feeling like a number one.”
Vermeire (who works as a hair stylist at Five Star Salon) said he was on the same page with the director from the first five minutes they met, which was nice. Instead of just black curtains on the sides (the wings), he created blue walls as dividers, to fit the seaside setting of the show.
“I wanted ‘Mamma Mia’ to be bright and blue, so I really wanted no black on stage if I could help it,” he said. “It needed to be bright. And it’s just different than stuff that I’ve seen here previously.”
He got into the cast because he was in the group chat for the directing staff, and they called for “any man with a pulse” to try out. “We had a bunch of guys that were in college last summer,” but couldn’t do it this summer, Vermeire said. “We had to find a whole new men’s ensemble and what we have is fantastic.”
Changes in lead and men’s chorus
Music director Bob Manasco said they had re-cast at least five men for the 15-person ensemble. The Guild board decided by late March to do the July and August shows with audiences, after Illinois Gov. Pritzker put the state in a “bridge phase” that would allow theaters to have up to 60-percent capacity, making it financially feasible to do the show. Since mid-June, indoor theaters can operate at full capacity.
Christina Myatt – on the Guild stage for the first time since playing lead Norma Desmond in 2017’s “Sunset Boulevard” — said the quality of the ensemble (which sings A LOT in the show) is amazing.
“We went to karaoke once and there are people in the ensemble we really hadn’t heard sing, and they got up to sing in karaoke and we were just floored,” Myatt said. “The level of talent really showed up in rehearsals. When we had music rehearsals, it was obvious people weren’t looking at it for the first time. It just fit together so quickly because people were right on top of it.”
Myatt was surprised that for a pop musical, there’s a surprising amount of intricacy and complexity to the vocal parts, beyond a typical four-part (SATB) arrangement.
“There are a lot of times, where under the lead vocal, there are six or seven parts,” she said.
“They’re trying to emulate the sound ABBA had on their original albums,” Manasco said. “There’s like choir one, choir two, singing different things, different polyrhythms. And the ensemble pretty much sings every song in the show. If they’re not on stage, they’re in the wings or backstage. They’re literally in every song, it’s crazy.”
“It sounds great, but I don’t think it’s what people expect,” Myatt said. Even Donna’s big song, “The Winner Takes It All,” features a lot of background vocals.
“Between that and because of how quickly scene changes needed to happen for this show, to keep it moving, our cast is moving all the set,” Vermeire said. “We had one rehearsal night that was going through all the different scenic changes and adding that choreography on top of all the other choreography we had to learn, it’s a fun challenge. It makes for a busy show. It goes by quicker. I kind of wish it would take its time more.”
“There is no problem with offstage talking for this show, for the first time ever,” he said of the cast.
Liv Lyman, a 23-year-old Moline High alum, is playing Sophie — her first time back on the Music Guild stage since 2014, when she was in “Legally Blonde.”
“It’s so fun to be back because the people I’m working with I’ve known since I was little. My first show at Music Guild, I was nine. So you know, I grew up working with them,” she said Monday. “And then, now being back, it’s been a whole lot of fun. It’s been really fun to catch up with everyone and kind of see where everyone else is in their lives. And, you know, obviously, in such a different place than seven years ago.”
In early 2020, Lyman was originally cast as Ali (one of Sophie’s friends), and Noel Huntley was cast as Sophie. But after the 2020 Guild season was canceled, Huntley got cast in Circa ‘21’s “Beehive” (which ends July 10), and Lyman moved into her role after auditions were held again earlier this year.
In late May, the “Mamma Mia” cast started rehearsals wearing masks, in chairs six feet apart, but by mid-June the state of Illinois lifted all Covid restrictions on capacity indoors.
A University of Iowa master’s student in clinical mental health counseling, Lyman can relate to Sophie, since in real life she’s engaged to be married to her fiancé Jake on Oct. 8, 2022.
“That’s like the biggest factor. I got engaged in March. We started rehearsing in May, so all the feelings that come with being engaged, in preparing to get married and stuff were so fresh,” she said. “Then we started work on the show. A big part of it is about the wedding and about Sophie and Sky’s relationship, too. So yeah, there’s been so many different ways that I feel like I identify with the character. That’s been really fun.”
Lyman has seen the movies (the sequel came out in 2018), but never saw a live production before.
“My friends and I would love to watch ‘Mamma Mia’ when we were younger, and we would choreograph our own dances to the songs and sing along,” she said. “It made rehearsing so much fun. And we recently added the orchestra pit and that’s just even more incredible.”
The last Q-C production she was in was playing Miss Honey in summer 2019, for Spotlight’s “Matilda the Musical,” and has really missed theater since.
“It is definitely my biggest stress relieving outlet,” Lyman said. “It’s obviously, it’s all for fun for me. I’m pursuing a career in counseling so it’s not something that I want to make a career out of, but it’s just it’s where I found all my best friends. It’s where I’ve just kind of found my second home in life. So missing that outlet, of course, along with navigating a global pandemic was, it’s just been a bonkers kind of year and half, so it’s two years actually. It’s so great to be back and it’s so great just to be around other people who also are here for fun. They like to sing, they like to dance. And it’s just ‘Mamma Mia’ is a big party, so it’s super fun.”
In January 2016, Lyman was picked to perform in the Illinois High School Theatre Festival, the largest and oldest non-competitive high school theater festival in the nation. That All-State Company (cast and crew) at Illinois State University was comprised of student performers, technicians and musicians from across Illinois. More than 300 students from 103 high schools auditioned/interviewed for that production of “Rent,” with 99 selected for the final company, including a cast of 44 – Lyman was the only one from the Quad-Cities.
“That in and of itself was a huge honor,” she said. “During that production, I just learned so much about theater in general. We were able to meet with certain people who had been on Broadway in the original production of ‘Rent.’ So we got to hear a bunch of stories from Adam Pascal (the original Roger) and all of these people that had worked with Jonathan Larson on creating the story and bringing it to the public for the first time. It was so cool to be able to hear that, in addition to making some of my best friends.”
“I am so excited because some of my friends that I made from that show, even have already bought their tickets to ‘Mamma Mia,” and like we still all live all around the country at this point, but we’re all still great friends,” Lyman said.
Her first Music Guild show was “It’s a Wonderful Life” in 2006 (as Zuzu), when she was 9, and she recalled being nervous at auditions.
“I had only sang in my second grade mini-theater production when I played a frog,” Lyman said, noting Val Pieper was her music teacher in school and her husband Kevin was directing Music Guild. “I was definitely so shy, and it’s really funny now because honestly I still feel a little bit of the same way when I’m in auditions. I get pretty nervous still, but I just remember everyone being so welcoming and so just like willing to help in any way and it really took the nerves away, even in the audition room but more so in the rehearsal space. Everyone was always just willing to be a friend and I still feel that way with the people that I work with in Music Guild. It’s great.”
Another “bucket list” role
After tackling Mama Rose of “Gypsy,” Norma in “Sunset Boulevard,” choreographing “A Chorus Line” and directing/choreographing “42nd Street,” Myatt (Pleasant Valley High’s director of theater) checks off another plum musical from her list in “Mamma Mia.”
Donna (who in the story reunites with her girl-group singers from Donna and the Dynamos) is “one of those iconic roles that’s been on the bucket list. I love this show – it’s fun,” she said. “I grew up listening to ABBA music. For me, I knew these songs. So that was super exciting.”
Myatt is having a great time with her “Dynamo” women friends, Heather Herkelman and Chris Castle, and noted the audience acts as “the fourth Dynamo.” That was a note from Houlihan, which Vermeire said “really resonated” with people.
“Let them in on all the jokes and let them in on all the fun,” he said of the audience. “Truly make them feel they are part of the cast. I think, when I heard that and the rest of us heard that, it clicked, like ‘Oh yeah.’ It’s hard when there’s nobody in the house, but once there is gonna be people, it’s gonna completely change the way we approach the show, for the better, I think.”
“There’s a lot of breaking the fourth wall, a lot of including the audience in on the jokes,” Myatt said. “I think it’s easy to involve them.”
“It’s sometimes hard to do from an actor’s point of view, ‘cause that’s normally not what we do,” Vermeire said.
Even if they were allowed to stream the show online, it wouldn’t be a good show to stream, since you wouldn’t be there in person, Manasco said.
“I think it would just miss the energy,” Myatt said. “This show is deceptive, in that it’s extremely demanding for everyone – physically, emotionally. It just sort of runs the gamut, and by the time you finish, you are exhausted and then you go to the bows and go, ‘Oh my God, we have to do six more minutes.’ When we’ve had some people to sit in the audience and when they stand up and get excited, they’re dancing, you kind of forget all that.”
“I could go another hour and a half,” Vermeire said. Myatt added: “You feed off that energy, so it really is dependent on the audience. It’s that extra boost.”
She said the leads get that same energy and support from the ensemble’s vocals, which push the music forward and intensifies it.
“It’s just a really nice blanket to have there,” Myatt said. Everyone in the cast wears body mics, which is also unusual for Music Guild, since they so often have to sing from off stage, and can see Manasco from video monitors.
Myatt also enjoys seeing Lyman (being engaged in real life), who reminds her of her own actress daughter, Anna (who finished her freshman year at New York’s Long Island University).
Manasco (who works in IT for John Deere) is directing the pit orchestra after having led QCMG performances of “West Side Story,” “Les Misérables,” “The Drowsy Chaperone,” and most recently “Beauty and the Beast” (2019). Since that time, he was cast in two cancelled shows (Robert in “Proof” at Muscatine Community College and Gomez in “Addams Family” at Spotlight), but spent the extra time completing an online master class series on Conducting for Musical Theatre with Bryan Perri (music director for “Jagged Little Pill” on Broadway).Manasco agreed this is the perfect show to come back to, after being away from live theater so long. “It’s got no heavy social commentary,” he said. Even the dramatic parts are all grouped together in one section of the story, Myatt said.
A couple cast members who haven’t been fully vaccinated against Covid are still wearing clear masks on stage.
The pit for “Mamma Mia” is small, like a rock band – four keyboards, two guitars, bass, drums and percussion. “It has its own unique challenges,” Manasco said, noting all electric instruments are plugged into the house sound system, and they’ve had to deal with occasional pops, cracks and sizzles. “I like the opportunity to try this out; there are not many shows like this.”
“It’s been a chance to stretch different creative muscles,” he said. “To sing this style of music, it’s been fun.”
Manasco music directed Herkelman and her (now) real-life fiance David Baxter as the leads in “Beauty and the Beast,” though they’re not a couple in “Mamma Mia.”
Vermeire said choreographer Beth Marsoun has done a great job at giving them movement “that looks intricate, but is just us having fun. It makes it easier for us,” he said.
At the closing bows, which is six minutes straight of dancing, the cast hopes to get the audience on their feet and moving, Myatt said. “I think a lot of people are gonna sing through the whole show,” she said. “That’s fine – it’s ‘Mamma Mia.’”