With theaters reopening, our local community troupe has decided to return to the stage with the irrepressibly upbeat "Mamma Mia!"
Tri-Valley Repertory Theatre presented the jukebox musical in January 2020 -- as COVID-19 was making its way inexorably toward us -- and the toe-tapping production based on the songs of ABBA received rave reviews.
Brian Olkowski, who directed that show, is returning for this second production. "We thought this might be good, to open up with a happy show, a feel-good show," Olkowski said. "It wasn't my decision but I do have a passion for 'Mamma Mia!'"
Indeed, Olkowski is the "heart and soul of the show," production manager Kathleen Breedveld told me. Olkowski lives in Dublin. He's worked on Tri-Valley Rep productions for years, and also started the Tri-Valley Young Performers Academy. He is now the dramatic arts teacher at Coyote Creek Elementary School in San Ramon, where the performing arts are blended with the core curriculum.
Back in 2003 Olkowski was training as a massage therapist and knew the stage manager for "Mamma Mia!" when it came to San Francisco, he explained.
"I had to do an internship and it was possible to do massage for the tour -- I went in and massaged the cast and that crew," Olkowski recalled. "Then I went with them to San Jose, Sacramento, Modesto, Bakersfield and spent a week in Boston."
"The first time (Tri-Valley Rep) did 'Mamma Mia!' I was so excited to revisit the musical that I love," he added.
For the upcoming show, Olkowski contacted the actors from the first production about returning.
"We lost a lot of people who'd moved for college or work reasons but we kept a lot," he said. "We have four or five returning ensemble members, and of the leads, four are the same."
The crew managed to get the same set and most of the costumes, chairs and tables from the previous show, but this will be a new production, Olkowski pointed out.
"We're finding new moments and making it our own. It's going to be similar but will have a life of its own," he said. "I'm listening to the actors and finding what works for them and what didn't work."
All of the cast, crew and orchestra members have been vaccinated. "They've been itching to get back at it," Olkowski said. "During rehearsals we are all in masks but they can take them off when performing."
He is expecting the new show to draw some who enjoyed "Mamma Mia!" in 2020.
"I think it will be a combination of people who saw the show and love it and, hopefully, we will attract a new audience as well," Olkowski said.
As of last week, the show was blocked and choreographed and they were running through the play in their rehearsal space on Serpentine Lane with music director Sierra Dee Rankin accompanying them on the piano.
"It's funny watching the actors' process," Olkowski said. "We started with the vocals with Sierra. Then Meghan Hornbacker came in and taught them the choreography and they forgot to sing."
But they caught on quickly and the show will be ready for opening night Nov. 12. This learning process is understandable since cast members also have day jobs, which is why rehearsal is in the evenings and on weekends. And that is the challenge -- and the joy -- of community theater.
I haven't seen "Mamma Mia!" onstage but its songs remind me of an exciting time in my life when we lived in Jeddah in the 1970s. We had Danish and Swedish friends who gave great parties, with plenty of food, drink and dancing to an earsplitting ABBA. Those songs bring me back just as they bring Olkowski back to his younger years and the excitement of traveling with the "Mamma Mia!" troupe.
And I can certainly vouch for the quality of shows by Tri-Valley Repertory Theatre -- its productions never have failed to delight and amaze me.
"Mamma Mia!" performances will be Nov. 12-21 at the Bankhead Theater in Livermore. What a wonderful way to celebrate theater and the hope that our lives are inching along to a new normal.
Editor's note: Dolores Fox Ciardelli is Tri-Valley Life editor for Embarcadero Media East Bay Division. Her column, "Valley Views," appears on the second and fourth Fridays of each month.