Mamma Mia!, the smash hit musical that ran on Broadway for a record-shattering 14 years, is making its Alamo City debut at the Public Theater of San Antonio this week. In anticipation of its opening, ArtScene SA sat down with director Ken Urso and choreographer Courtnie Mercer to talk about bringing this show to life and the reasons for its enduring popularity.
ArtScene SA: Have you done a lot of work in San Antonio?
Ken Urso: This is my first time here!
What brings you to the Alamo City?
George [Green] called me. I met him a few years ago when he was working on shows in Spokane, Washington. He called and said he had a job for me!
Nice summer trip!
Exactly! I’m a full-time teacher of an acting, directing and playwriting Master’s program in New York City, so summer is when I can go out and do shows regionally.
What makes Mamma Mia! the perfect way to send off the season here at the Public?
It’s a party! And it’s summery. It’s about celebrating with a big old bang, so why not end the season with a wedding party?
How has your experience been working at the Public and with this cast?
It’s been so inspiring to watch everyone rise to professional quality so quickly. We have cast members who’ve been performing for a long time, and others for whom this is their first or second show. And you can’t tell who’s who, because everyone’s working so hard! Watching Courtnie [Mercer] show people how to dance who’ve never danced before is amazing.
And the design staff has also been wonderful. It’s been such a dream to work with all of these people and watch them have so much fun putting on this show.
What do you think gives Mamma Mia! such long legs?
It’s always going to be the Abba songs, first and foremost, but what everyone can also connect to is the story. It’s about family, and that’s the human condition everyone can relate to. There’s the family you’re born with, and then there’s the family that fate gives you. Mamma Mia! has been translated into something like 23 different languages. It’s been in every part of the world.
The themes are universal.
Yes. You’ll find yourself connecting to the story, even if you just came to hear some good Abba music.
How does Andrew Hendley’s band sound?
Also amazing! What’s crazy about the show is that it has to be done with three keyboards, and they’re connected to computers. To get that Abba sound, the player triggers a button on the computer that changes the sound of the piano multiple times during a song, and it all has to be done at the same time. And the band — last night, during rehearsal, I couldn’t believe how much they sounded like the Broadway cast recording!
Have you had the opportunity to see any other theater in town? They just finished a great Assassins here.
I did see Assassins. It was fantastic. I’ve seen so many bad productions of the show that I was never a big fan, but then I saw this one, and George totally nailed it. The cast was fantastic. And to make it immersive, to have the assassins all around you…I get goosebumps just thinking about it again.
Choreographer Courtnie Mercer has also been working diligently on the show. Even on crutches, due to a recent ACL surgery, she hasn’t slowed down one bit. She gave her thoughts about staging Mamma Mia! at the Public.
ArtScene SA: Have you done Mamma Mia! before?
Courtnie Mercer: This is my first time! I’ve seen the movie, but I’ve never seen a stage production of it before. Since many of the prior shows I researched used the movie’s choreography, I made sure to make this version one hundred percent ours. I didn’t use anybody else’s choreography. I used as my inspiration dance from the ‘70s to the ‘90s and worked to make it all a big “party” feel.
I was really excited when this show was announced. It’s huge! And the fact that the [film’s] sequel is coming out this year makes it even better.
How has it been working with this cast?
They’ve been great. They’re very open-minded, which is good, because there’s a lot of high-energy choreography. It’s extremely tied in with the music, so every motion is integral with each song. Some of the performers are trained dancers, and some of them are what we call “movers,” but they’ve all handled the choreography really, really well. We couldn’t have asked for a better cast.
What do you hope audiences will derive from watching the show?
I hope audiences will leave energized, having seen a good story but also having experienced a party! It’s a big rock concert, after all. I hope this is a show that they’ll want to come back and see again and tell their friends about.
Mamma Mia! plays Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. from July 6 to August 5 at the Public Theater of San Antonio, 800 W. Ashby Place. Reservations can be made online or by calling the box office at (210) 733-7258.
Cast photo by Siggi Ragnar.