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On Friday, the Racine Theatre Guild (RTG) opened “Mamma Mia!,” their season closer and biggest production since COVID brought the world — and the Guild — to a halt. With direction by Doug Instenes, music direction by Greg Berg and choreography by Mary Leigh Sturino, this show is a delightful bohemian adventure with ABBA as its musical backdrop.

Two years in the making

This production carries a variety of meanings to those involved, from sense of community to dream role fulfillment; but overall, the prevailing word on almost everyone’s tongues is “finally.” From 2020 to now, there was a definite struggle among the cast and crew to stay hopeful and keep the musical feeling fresh.

Elisebeth Sparks and Andrew Dorst, who play Sophie and Sky respectively, spoke with the Racine County Eye over Zoom just hours before opening night. On the subject of this two-year journey, Dorst said, “Since it has been almost three years since I’ve been able to do a production, (it) is almost like a learning process to get back into the whole flow of it all again, and almost like learning how to be in a show again.”

How the pandemic altered production

Sparks and Dorst further expressed the toll that COVID took on the production.

Waiting was the hardest part, Sparks said. She explained that it didn’t feel like it had been that long, but every time rehearsals attempted to start up again, that the truth of how much time had passed made the process feel longer and longer.

Mamma Mia! at Racine Theatre Guild
Sophie (Elisebeth Sparks) and Sky (Andrew Dorst) are deliriously in love leading up to their wedding day. – Credit: Michael Steinbach/Bach Photography

Dorst mentioned that there was “definitely a lot more precaution around (rehearsals), especially with some cases rising, being more conscious of wearing masks when we can, staying sanitized, staying healthy.” Yet, he found a bright side to the situation: “I feel like it’s given us all a higher commitment to the show that we’re doing. It’s made us feel a lot more invested in the whole process, too,” he said. “I feel like it gives a lot more meaning to us, finally being able to put on this show.”

A cast of veterans and newbies

For some in the cast, including Dorst, “Mamma Mia!” is just another feather in their RTG caps. For others, it is their very first time gracing the Guild’s stage.

Dorst spoke on how each show provides something unique which can fuel them as actors. He said that being a part of RTG, like many other veteran cast members, for so long has evolved him as a performer and that every new show and director bring different perspectives on acting.

Mamma Mia! at Racine Theatre Guild
Sophie (Elisebeth Sparks), Lisa (Meghan Flynn), and Ali (Rylie Armantrout) are shocked by the secrets they find in Donna’s diary. – Credit: Michael Steinbach/Bach Photography
Mamma Mia! at Racine Theatre Guild
Sam (Brain Schalk), Bill (Ed Steckley), and Harry (Bob Benson) surprise and unsuspecting Donna (Bryanna VanCaster). – Credit: Michael Steinbach/Bach Photography

Sparks, who falls into the latter category, said, “It definitely was a surprise that I was offered something right out the gate…I think it was a family member that sent me the audition information. So I auditioned; I wasn’t really expecting much, so (I was) very surprised and very excited when they did reach out and offer the role of Sophie.” She later remarked that playing Sophie “is a dream.”

The importance of ABBA

Singing iconic ABBA numbers is a personal highlight of the production for both Sparks and Dorst. They said that it’s a way for them to connect with not only the audience, but also their inner ABBA fan.

“I feel like it all just comes back to the music for me,” Dorst said. “Like the songs are just, I mean, there’s not a bad song in the show. I love the whole soundtrack. It’s just really fun to get a chance to sing it and be a part of that.”

Four weekends ahead of them

RTG begins every show with live opening remarks from different people important to the production. Instenes, Artistic Director of RTG, was given this task for “Mamma Mia!” on Friday. He expressed his gratefulness that the show was finally able to be put on and metaphorically crossed his fingers that the musical would fulfill its scheduled four-week run.

Mamma Mia! at Racine Theatre Guild
Sophie (Elisebeth Sparks) beams on her wedding day while her mother Donna (Bryanna VanCaster) watches her closely. – Credit: Michael Steinbach/Bach Photography

Four weekends is longer than other musicals at RTG typically run, but each performer has their own strategy and insight on how to not develop burnout or get bored onstage.

“With the songs and interaction between different characters, there’s been new discoveries every time I’ve been in each and every scene,” Sparks said. “With the audience, that changes it even further: there are some people who just love the songs, there are a lot of people who know the movie, there are some people who know neither and just think (attending a musical is) a fun thing to go and do. So depending on who comes every night, it’s going to be a little different, and that I’m really excited for.”

Mamma Mia! at Racine Theatre Guild
Donna (Bryanna VanCaster), Tanya (Samantha Sustachek), and Rosie (Vanessa Schroeder-Weber) strike a Donna and the Dynamos pose. – Credit: Michael Steinbach/Bach Photography

The vibes of opening night

Friday’s performance played to an almost-sold-out audience — very few seats were empty. The crowd’s energy was cautiously optimistic, as if no one could believe that things were nearly “back to normal.”

This was reinforced by the Guild’s mask policy: they are highly recommended, but not required. Because of this, and in an effort to return to normalcy, concessions were also being sold.

The pandemic still remains a threat, especially now that the Wisconsin DHS has recently recommended the return of indoor masking as positive cases are on the rise in Racine and Kenosha. However, RTG has not implemented any new COVID protocols since this March.

How, when and where to see the show

“Mamma Mia!” runs every weekend from now until June 12.

To see the show, tickets can be purchased on RTG’s website or by contacting the box office at 262-633-4218 Monday through Friday from noon to 6 p.m. or 90 minutes before curtain.

Tickets are $20 for adults, $18 for seniors and $15 for students (21 and under). On value nights (May 29, June 2, 5, and 9), prices are reduced to $17 for adults, $15 for seniors and $12 for students.

The Racine Theatre Guild is located at 2519 Northwestern Ave. in Racine.

“Mamma Mia!” is sponsored by Rasmussen Diamonds.

Mamma Mia! at Racine Theatre Guild
The men celebrate Sky’s (Andrew Dorst) stag party, making it a fun, crazy time. – Credit: Michael Steinbach/Bach Photography

‘Mamma Mia!’ synopsis

“On a Greek island paradise, Sophie is getting ready to marry her fiancé, Sky. To make her wedding day perfect, Sophie hopes and dreams that her father walks her down the aisle. The only problem? She doesn’t know who he is! After discovering secrets from her mother’s past, Sophie invites three men who could all be her father to the wedding. Intertwined with ABBA’s timeless songs, the hit musical is a celebration of love, laughter, family, and friendship.”

Provided by Racine Theatre Guild

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