Natalie Wittenberger has only seen the jukebox stage musical “Mamma Mia!” once. However, the 20-something remembers being 9 years old, singing all the ABBA songs featured in the stage production and on the Billboard charts from the internationally known Swedish pop group into her karaoke machine.
“(‘Mamma Mia!’) just sucks you in. You are there not just to watch it, but to be a part of it. You are just as involved as the people on stage,” she said. “People say either you love them or you hate them, or you hate to love them. It has always been a love relationship with me.”
Wittenberger now gets to encourage others to be a part of “Mamma Mia!” when she stars as Sophie Sheridan in The Little Theatre’s presentation of the hit musical Feb. 14-16 at Miller Performing Arts Center, 501 Madison St.
After a 14-year run on Broadway, the show then was available for regional and semi-professional theaters before community theaters like The Little Theatre had access to produce the production.
“It is one that we have the availability to fast track a show through MTI, Music Theatre International, who own the rights. You sign up for an email notification and they let us know the show and rights became available,” “Mamma Mia!” Director Gabrielle Wittenberger said. The 43-year-old did her first show with The Little Theatre at 19, first directing “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” there and now has directed nine total with the theater company.
“Our artistic director applied for the rights as quickly as we could get them. They had already planned to do a different show for this spot, but when this became available they jumped on it,” she said.
Even though many are familiar with and have seen at least one production of the stage musical “Mamma Mia!” like Gabrielle and Natalie Wittenberger, Gabrielle said those more familiar with the 2008 movie can rest assured the story concept and most of the songs are pretty much the same.
“The only thing that is really different is there are some songs in this show that were not in the movie. A couple of those songs were added to the new movie, using them in clever ways,” Gabrielle said.
ABBA’s hits tell the hilarious story of a young woman’s search for her birth father. Set on the Green island paradise, the tale unfolds on the eve of Sophie Sheridan’s wedding, and Sophie, played by Natalie Wittenberger, is on a quest to discover the identity of her father. She brings three men — Sam Carmichael (played by Jerico Whitaker), Bill Austin (played by Dave Bond) and Harry Bright (played by Jeff Ball) — from her mother’s past back to the island they last visited 20 years ago. The story-telling magic of ABBA’s timeless songs propels this tale of love, laughter and friendship, creating an unforgettable show.
“As a music person, the harmonies are just fun to sing along to. Most of the songs make you really happy and the songs tell a story,” said Karin Schatte, who plays Donna Sheridan, Sophie’s mother. Schatte, who recently played Mary Poppins in The Little Theatre’s presentation of the musical, also grew up listening to ABBA and marks “Money, Money, Money” and “Dancing Queen” as some of her many favorites. “It must have been not too hard to pull a story together with all their songs.”
“I love how the guys in ABBA use the songs to have conversations with people. They have been able to create these conversations in these songs, just like Mamma Mia! These guys show up and the whole scene where Donna is freaking out,” Gabrielle said, noting how she likes that this show also gives ladies ages 35-50 several key roles.
Those conversations between Sophie and Donna, who are dealing with Sophie entering adulthood and leaving the nest, hits home with many of the participants in the musical, especially Gabrielle.
“My daughter who is playing Sophie is about her age, and I, too, am letting her go and letting her do her thing,” Gabrielle said. “The relationship she and Donna, her mother, have is similar. They are butting heads, she is trying to do things different than her mom, how she wants it to be. That whole thing is such a good story. All the other characters just add such great humor and meaning to the show.”
Regardless of whether its ABBA’s music, the epic dance scenes, including a special surprise at the end, or the hilarious and heart-warming storyline, The Little Theatre 22-member cast and crew know audiences will have a good time.
“It is so easy to sing along and feel like you are part of it. That is the fun about this show, too, it turns into a party for the whole theater,” Schatte said.
“Mamma Mia!” is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Feb. 14 and 15, and 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Feb. 16 at Miller Performing Arts Center. Tickets are $20 per person. For more information or to order tickets, visit tltjc.org or call 573-681-9400.