Spring in St. Pete means so much more than pollen, baseball and taxes. For one, there’s American Stage in the Park.
For its 2019 show, the venerable professional theater company has pulled the silliest, most nonsensical – and most utterly irresistible – musical out of the bag. It’s Mamma Mia!, the feel-good story constructed around a big playlist of songs by the ‘70s Swedish pop group ABBA.
Mamma Mia! premiered in 1999 and holds the record as the ninth longest-running show in Broadway history; the film version (starring a singing and dancing Meryl Streep) was the 5th highest-grossing movie of 2008.
American Stage’s production opens Wednesday (April 10) and will run through May 12 at Demens Landing Park, at the intersection of Bayshore Drive and 2nd Ave. South, on Tampa Bay. The cast of 20 is directed by Stephanie Gularte. Choreography is by Shain Stroff; the live band is led by Michael Raabe.
You can reserve a chair, or bring along a blanket or a lawn chair of your own.
“It is such a different atmosphere from a traditional theater experience, because it really does feel like a rock concert,” says actress Alison Burns, who plays Donna (a.k.a. the Meryl Streep character).
Mamma Mia! is the fifth outdoor American Stage show for Burns; the Seminole-based performer was previously seen in Rent, The Rocky Horror Show, Hairspray and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.
“It’s my favorite thing to do in this area,” she says. “In traditional musical theater, it’s kind of a reverent place: Dressing up, sitting in your seat, silence your cellphones, no talking … not singing along is kind of the stigma.
“But then you go to something like this, and people are having picnics two hours before the show. And they watch you do soundcheck. And they’re singing along. Kids get up and start dancing. It just becomes such a community event.”
Producing artistic director Gularte has directed many Mainstage shows in her four years with the company; Mamma Mia!, however, is the first time she’s directed “Park,” which is American Stage shorthand for the spring musical.
“There are so many pieces to doing this that are very specific to Park, that are not like our other programming,” Gularte says.
“The best way I can describe it: It’s like planning a wedding. Your life is still going on, you still have all these other things going on that are important. You still have to show up for your job. You still have the people that are not part of the wedding who still need your attention.
“But the wedding has to happen, and it demands a lot of your attention and resources – and of course all that time and work is going toward something beautiful.”
The “plot” of Mamma Mia!, as its many fans know, actually concerns preparations for a wedding (Donna’s daughter Sophie) on a small, spectacularly blue Greek island. Everyone sings, and everyone dances, and the songs are a veritable ticker-tape hit parade: “Dancing Queen,” “Chiquitita,” “Take a Chance on Me,” “Waterloo,” “Mamma Mia!,” “I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do,” “The Winner Takes it All” and more.
“It’s the perfect park show, because the material is already larger than life,” observes Becca McCoy, who plays Rosie, one of Donna’s (singing and dancing) pals, who’s arrived for the nuptials.
“It’s set outdoors, and we get to do it outdoors. It’s set right on the edge of the water, and we’re doing it right on the edge of the water.” The show, McCoy stresses, has “an unabashed level of joy. And one of the things that’s so lovely about it is that no one possesses any sort of malice; the conflict comes from the circumstances, the heightened circumstances of what weddings do to people.”
Granted, she laughs, “It’s not Shakespeare, it’s not rocket science, but there’s a reason it’s a 20-year phenomenon. It’s the grandmother of all jukebox musicals. In terms of creating a cohesive plot and having all of these songs fit in in a really seamless and plot-promoting way, it’s pretty brilliant. For what it is.”
When she first arrived at American Stage, Gularte says, “I made the assumption that Park was like the ‘holiday show’ – you do it and it pays for everything else. Not the case. Because it is tremendously expensive to do.”
A single rainout can mean a $25,000 loss to the company. It’s happened before (the final performance of The Producers last season fell victim to the weather).
“Clearly, I was not going to be the producing artistic director that comes in and takes Park away, because I could see how much it means to the community, and how much it means to the organization. It’s special; it’s a kind of signature for us.”
Gularte has worked, behind the scenes, to make Park more sustainable, creating new and more lucrative sponsorships and altering the ticket-pricing structure. And choosing big, familiar titles like Mamma Mia!
Under her watch, the “contemporary” Park series broke even for the first time in 2016, 10 years after it began (a different edition had run out of gas in the early ’00s).
Nevertheless, it’s always a big draw – in fact, Gularte believes its festive atmosphere makes it likely the only time some people see live theater all year. “Park,” she says, “is the experience for them.”
It’s a unique experience for the performers as well. “Theater’s live, and that’s part of the adrenaline rush – every night it’s different,” Burns points out.
“When you add in the element of being outdoors, with thousands of people, that just adds a whole new live element to it. This is true live theater, where literally anything can happen. I remember one year a cat ran across the stage.”
Tickets and info here.