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‘Mamma Mia!’ play name at Cedar Rapids Theater

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After spending the winter in Russia, Iowa City’s Christopher Okiishi said he was excited to spend the summer in Greece.

A familiar face in The Corridor art scene, Okiishi has been on the flip-flop since directing “Natasha, Peter and the Great Comet of 1812,” an intensely complex musical based on part of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.” After leading this sold-out show for the Riverside Theater in Iowa City, from winter rehearsals to a spring opening, he takes his first turn at the Theater Cedar Rapids, leading a cast of super troupers in a spirited frolic at through “Mamma Mia!” on stage from June 24 to July 31.

If you are going to

What: “Mom Mia!”

Where: Cedar Rapids Theater, 102 Third St. SE, Cedar Rapids

When: June 24 to July 31, 2022; 7:30 p.m. Thursday to Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $22 to $49, TCR Box Office, (319) 366-8591 or theatrecr.org/event/mamma-mia/2022-06-24/

The two shows couldn’t be more different. One is stunning in its complexity, and the other usually has audiences dancing in the aisles.

“‘The Great Comet’ is a masterpiece of carefully constructed words and music,” Okiishi said. “And ‘Mamma Mia’ has a totally different purpose – and that’s to entertain and delight, and not make you think too much.”

It’s a story of love and perseverance built around the music of ABBA, who emerged from Stockholm in 1972 and dominated pop charts and disco dance floors for a decade.

Themes

“The plot is a fantasy of inheriting an island in Greece and trying to build a hotel on that island as a young, single mother – and then having all the sacrifices and choices you made to get there. arrive, converge on the island in a weekend,” Okiishi said.

Without giving away all the plot points, he noted that “the biggest twist is that the mother, Donna, who built this hotel, doesn’t know who the father of her daughter, Sophie, is. And that’s where the great mystery of the play, since the three men who are perhaps dads return, invited to Sophie’s wedding.

Other guests show up, including Donna’s long-time musical girl group friends; Donna’s past loves; and Sophie’s fiancé and their friends – none of whom know what awaits them as the storylines thicken into catchy beats and ballads.

“I think the goal of the production is to make people feel the extremes of love, devotion and family,” said Okiishi, a psychiatrist.

“These themes are so universal and are so part of our fabric – tying it to pop music and tying it to memories of beautiful places – that it was joyful to visit Greece for the summer with ABBA after to have been in Russia during the winter, which was also joyful in a whole other way, but (joy) was not the point of this show,” he added with a laugh.

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Because the “Mamma Mia!” Writers created a story around existing songs in 1999, more than a decade after ABBA’s initial disbandment in 1982, the show was seen as a musical jukebox.

This label “isn’t necessarily a bad thing,” Okiishi said. “That doesn’t mean it’s not a good show. I think they were very careful how they placed the songs in the plot so that the emotions you get from the songs are the same as the characters. »

He’s seen it six times — three times on Broadway, on two national tours and the Old Creamery Theater’s 2019 production in Amana — so he knows the show inside out. He said it’s the kind of production that’s accessible to high school and college performers to community theaters and professional troupes.

“I think those are the best parts of musical theatre, in that you come in and feel a depth of emotion that only music can give you,” he said, “and then you have this beautiful exit. dancing in the aisles at the end.”

He secretly hopes viewers will keep the aisle singing and dancing for the show’s three built-in encores: “Mamma Mia,” “Dancing Queen” and “Waterloo,” but he realizes some audience members won’t. may not be able to hold back.

Cedar Rapids’ Janelle Lauer, who plays both the title role of mamma Donna and the show’s musical director, agrees audience members — especially those who grew up with the music — won’t be able to suppress their ABBA interior.

“I said to Chris, ‘We should totally ask TCR to do a one-on-one night. I said that out loud and then I was like, ‘Oh, that’s a stupid idea, because every night is going to be a song to sing.’ I fully anticipate people are going to get up and dance,” Lauer said.

“I just think it’s a happy, fun show – not that there aren’t any dramatic moments – but I think it’s something that’s really needed right now.”

It’s something she needed too.

Lauer, who raises the roof every time she performs, is a classically trained singer known locally for singing the blues, rock ‘n’ roll and whatever else she usually sings with the SPT Theater and on shows. past concerts of Divapalooza.

“I strongly believe in the song you sing, you have to convey the message of the song and the emotion of the song,” she said. “It’s the same concept. It’s just a different way to sing it.

But it’s been a long time since she’s been on stage in a musical theater production, instead playing keyboards and leading the orchestra in the pit.

Double Duty

She was already on board the direct music “Mamma Mia!” from when TCR originally planned for the show to hit the stage in summer 2020

“We had already cast the series,” she said. “We had our very first meeting, where we read the show, we listened to the music, we got all the information from everyone, and then it all stopped. That was all we were going for.

Then around December 2021, she said TCR had decided to put the show in that year’s summer slot and emailed the cast to see who was still interested and available to play their roles. Some had gone off to college, others had moved away or had other time commitments.

“And so we had to replace almost half the cast, which is the same thing that happened to ‘Kinky Boots.’ They also had to replace a lot of their cast,” she noted.

“Mom Mia!” lost two out of three Dynamos”, and Chris turned to me and said, “I think you should play Donna”, and I said, “What? So that’s how it happened,” Lauer said.

“It wasn’t originally how it was supposed to work, and believe me, I was very apprehensive about it.”

Sure, she’s been the musical director for about 70 shows since 2009, but the last time she performed was “Flight of the Lawnchair Man” in 2010, a Cedar Rapids Opera production at Theater Cedar Rapids.

Not only did she fear she might be able to memorize lines again, but the thought of being on stage in a jumpsuit made her want to rush to the nearest gym. But then reality set in.

“At some point I thought to myself, ‘I’m 52, I’ll never get the chance to do this again, most likely, because that’s not what I normally do. However, this is what a 52-year-old body looks like, and so I’m going to embrace the show with as much joy as I can. ”

She finds a lot of joy, thanks to an understanding cast and Forrest Green, her “right hand” in the pit since “Sweeney Todd”, who has been coming to play keyboards for rehearsals for several weeks.

“I’ll tell you, it’s very hard for me to take my music director hat off, because that’s exactly what I’m used to doing,” Lauer said, recalling a rehearsal where the set missed her entrance on a song, so she stopped. sing his notes and began to sing theirs.

She warned them: “Listen, I will never be able to take off my (music director) hat. However, I hope this is the last time I have to remind you of anything, so I can just put on the Donna hat and focus on it.

Luckily, she said everyone was really supportive of her double duty.

“It’s great for me to have that, so I know at least they understand when I need to change my hat,” she said. “I don’t think anyone is mad at me. It is just what it is. It’s just a completely different way of working.

Okiishi is quick to sing Lauer’s praises for his ability to play the lead role while leading the show’s musical path.

“It’s been such a wonderful development,” he said. “I don’t know if she’ll always work that way, but being literally on the show, she can hear the sound in a way that most music directors never get a chance to.”

Comments: (319) 368-8508; [email protected]

Janelle Lauer unleashes her inner dance queen as Donna in “Mamma Mia!” The feel-good musical based on the songs of ABBA opens Friday and runs through July 31 at Theater Cedar Rapids. (Alisabeth Von Presley)

Donna and the Dynamos reunite their girl group in “Mamma Mia!” at the Cedar Rapids Theater. The cast are (left to right) Shelby Myers as Rosie, Janelle Lauer as Donna and Jennifer Ford as Tanya. The show opens Friday and runs through July 31, 2022. (Alisabeth Von Presley)

Janelle Lauer is the mom of “Mamma Mia!” and Sophie Lindwall plays her daughter, Sophie. The musical, which tells the story of a young woman searching for her birth father as she prepares to walk down the aisle, will play on stage at the Cedar Rapids Theater from June 24 to July 31, 2022. (Alisabeth Von Presley)