by Ashley Lodato, Education Director for Methow Arts
Although none of the members of the Liberty Bell Drama Company (LBDC) in the Methow Valley School District were alive during the heyday of the Swedish pop music supergroup ABBA, they’re as familiar with the band’s songs as any 1970s disco fan on the club circuit—and perhaps even more so. Acting in the LBDC’s May 2020 production of Mamma Mia!, then, is in some ways a bit of a homecoming. Still, as with any LBDC production, this Mamma Mia! venture is uncharted terrain.
Unlike most of the rest of the general population, Liberty Bell Drama Company teacher and director Kelly Grayum was not smitten with the musical Mamma Mia! at first glance. “My initial uninformed view of Mamma Mia! was that it was vacuous fluff,” he says. “But it turns out to be very well written, the music is challenging, and it offers some wonderful moments for our young actors to plumb the depths of their characters’ emotions.”
Also, notes Grayum, Mamma Mia! is the first LBDC play written by a woman, which Grayum believes is important, especially since the musical’s theme centers around the idea that a woman doesn’t need a man to complete her; that she has within her everything she needs to be her best self.
“I like that theme,” says Grayum, who works with co-director Danbert Nobacon, Merc Playhouse Executive Director Missi Smith, and Methow Arts vocal teaching artist Dana Stromberger to make script selections. “We consider student interest first,” says Grayum. “We want a show that will generate general buy-in.”
Mamma Mia! was a popular choice with many students, Grayum says, and it also features multiple roles for females, which mirrors the LBDC’s class enrollment. Finally, says Grayum, “We want to select a show that has a rich theme and topic to explore and is well-written with good music.”
Ah yes, thank you for the music. The show’s score is, as Grayum says, “undeniable and fun.” It’s a rare person who can hear an ABBA song without at least tapping her foot to the beat. With enduring favorites like “Dancing Queen” and “Voulez Vous,” Mamma Mia! has the potential to turn into one giant singalong. “If the audience isn’t singing along by the end,” says Grayum, “we did something very wrong. Or everyone in the audience died during the performance.”
With such a lively and familiar show, Grayum says, one of the challenges is reminding students that they are not recreating the movie that so many of them have seen (and which some of them can recite line for line along with Hollywood stars Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan). “The musical is different in many really important ways,” says Grayum. “They can create their own version of these characters.”
The audience, too, Grayum says, should “drop their assumptions about this show based on the movie and come with as blank a slate as they can.” This version of Mamma Mia! is uniquely an LBDC production, and if you’ve seen any of the company’s other productions, you know that you are bound to be surprised.
One thing you won’t be surprised by is the talent of actors, singers, dancers, choreographers, stage directors, costume designers involved in Mamma Mia! “I am in awe of our kids,” Grayum says. But it’s not only the students’ theatrical flair that impresses Grayum and Nobacon; it’s their poise and maturity regarding the play’s casting. “There are only so many lead and supporting roles and with all of the talent that signed up for the class, disappointment was inevitable,” says Grayum, adding, “But again, we are so impressed by our kids, how they rallied from disappointment in the casting and have worked so hard on the show already.”
All this energy put forth by the LBDC members has translated into a community “buzz surrounding the show,” says Grayum, noting that last year’s performance of Chicago sold out for every show; he expects Mamma Mia! to do the same.
What happens onstage during live shows is sometimes the only thing audiences are aware of, but of course there are hundreds of person-hours poured into every production for months leading up to opening night. Students rehearse in class for about three hours each week, and they’ll spend extra hours at the Merc in the evenings in the weeks leading up to the show. Vocal coach Dana Stromberger has already begun working on some of ABBA’s signature fast and complicated harmonies with students. “There are 3- and 4-part harmonies all over the place,” Grayum says. “In years past, we would just do away with harmonies, but with Dana now and such hard-working kids, everything is possible.” Additionally, Grayum says, “we have choreographers now so each number is going to be amazing. Missi Smith at The Merc and junior Annika Libby are combining to design and teach the choreography. We are so lucky.”
The set, too, says Grayum, will wow audiences. In years past, some LBDC members have not wanted to be onstage and have thus worked with Nobacon on the set, but this year all 28 students have roles in Mamma Mia! This means that Nobacon will single-handedly taken on the set design and much of its construction. In addition to being an actor, singer, and songwriter (read more here), Nobacon “is an amazing 3-D visual artist,” says Grayum. “The set will be amazing. And I suspect we will all pick up a hammer and paintbrush eventually.”
As they do with other LBDC productions, students will select and create costumes and props for the show, sourcing from the Merc’s supplies, the community, and their own homes. “We do need props!” says Grayum. “For example, anyone have a bagpipe we could borrow? How about 6 wetsuits, snorkel masks, and flippers? A very small rowboat?”
Snorkels? Bagpipes? “Take a Chance on Me?” “Knowing Me, Knowing You?” What’s not to like? Mamma Mia!, here we go again. And we just can’t wait.
DATE: May 13-17, 2020. TIME: Wed-Sat @7pm. Sun @2pm. Doors open 30 minutes prior to showtime. LOCATION: Merc Playhouse, Twisp. TICKETS: $12/adult, $5 students. Advance tickets available here. INFO: More info here.