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Greek to Me

"Mamma Mia!" is like a Mediterranean vacation without airports or passports, built around the chart-topping hits of the 1970s Swedish pop group ABBA.

Gina Conroy
July 28, 2019

Here we go again! Theatre Tulsa opens its 97th season with another hit show. Based on the music from ‘70s pop band ABBA, this jukebox romantic comedy is guaranteed to have you dancing in your seat or at least singing along to the catchy tunes. But you don’t have to be a dancing queen to enjoy the show. Thanks to the Broadway hit and the 2008 big screen musical starring Meryl Streep, Mamma Mia!’s music is loved by many generations.

Mamma Mia! is one of my children’s favorite musicals. It was always on the screen, or we were listening to it in the car,” says Ashlee Osborn, who is thrilled to be playing such an iconic role as Donna Sheridan. Osborn grew up doing theater and has been in dozens of shows over the years, but Donna is a dream role. After college, she worked on cruise ships and then directed shows at the Broken Arrow Community Playhouse.

“I then spent the next 17 years working behind the scenes, producing worship services at large churches, videos, graphics, and such,” says Osborn. “I had been thinking about getting back onstage, so when I saw they were doing Mamma Mia!, I decided to take a risk. My goal was to not pass out during the dance audition and do my best; maybe they’d let me be a part of the team. I still can’t believe I’m playing Donna.”

“When it comes to directing a hit show like Mamma Mia!, it can be a blessing and a curse because people are so familiar with it,” says Lisa Fox, who worked in the Oklahoma City theater scene for over 30 years. She was thrilled when Theatre Tulsa’s Jay Krottinger asked her to be a guest director. “Everyone has an idea about Mamma Mia!. Since so much has been done in the past has worked, I’ve tried to honor that, but add my ideas to the production.”

One of the challenges of Mamma Mia! is recreating the beautiful Greek island where the story takes place. “Lighting is used to enhance the innovative set, which results in beautiful images,” says Fox. “Our lighting designer, Deanna Byford, will be using a lot of the iridescent blue of the Aegean Sea to create the island feel, and our set designer, Alan Schwanke. has included a boardwalk deck with pillars looking out to the sea. The costumes will also create a feeling of light and balmy Mediterranean breezes.”

The story follows Donna, who on the eve of her daughter’s wedding, is unexpectedly united with three past lovers (Sam Carmichael, Bill Austin, and Harry Bright) — all who could be her daughter’s father. As the past collides with the present, Donna and her two best friends (Rosie and Tanya), relive their glory days as performers of Donna and the Dynamos, while the lead singer deals with the whirlwind of emotions from the memories of the summer she got pregnant with her only child, Sophie Sheridan.

“Donna is scared,” says Osborn. “Her past mistakes and the fact that she doesn’t have it all together is about to be revealed. The fact that Sam left her, and she was rejected, all those suppressed feelings return. She’s a hot mess.”

And that hot mess comes across beautifully in ABBA’s songs like “Honey, Honey,”  “Take a Chance on Me,” “SOS,” “Money, Money, Money,” and “Mamma Mia,” to name a few.

Donna and the Dynamos featuring Ashlee Osborn (center) as Donna Sheridan.
Donna and the Dynamos featuring Ashlee Osborn (center) as Donna Sheridan.

“I’m old enough that I’ve had all kinds of relationships, so I draw from those,” says Osborn, who has the challenge of interacting with many of the characters on a personal level. “Whether a relationship is romantic or not, each is different from the other because of the dynamics between personalities.”

Through all the zaniness that ensues from Donna unsuccessfully avoiding her past lovers, she always has her two best friends to lean on.

“They are the type of friends who, no matter how long it’s been since you’ve seen each other, they pick up right where they left off. They would do anything for each other,” says Osborn. “Just being together brings out the young in each other.”

The chemistry Donna has with her three previous lovers adds depth to the story and the character of Donna.

“Bill is an adventurer who grew up in the area so when she first sees him, she feels a little joy,” says Osborn. “Harry was so very different as a young man; a headbanger and now a banker. I think Donna is just so shocked and even a little impressed at his transformation. I imagine she had the most fun with Harry, and they take time to relive those moments together. It makes her feel happiness amid the chaos.”

But with Sam, for whom she harbors both bitterness and love, she deals with a complicated mess of emotions. “She’s just angry,” says Osborn. “He broke her heart when he left to marry his fiancée, and Donna doesn’t show sadness in front of others, so it all comes out as anger.”

While every role is challenging, Osborn finds playing Donna easy because she can relate to her. “She is strong and independent,” says Osborn. “Most people who know me would describe me that way.”

Osborn admits the challenge is playing the role of a mother of a 20-something girl. “Last time I was onstage, I was the young girl,” says Osborn, who admits there are moments between Sophie and Donna that are emotionally complicated.  “I have a 12-year-old daughter, and what I’ve decided is that even though Sophie is a grown girl, in those moments of frustration and insecurity, she’s standing in front of me with the vulnerability much like a little girl. So, I am trying to approach those moments much like I would with my daughter.”

Osborn admits there’s a lot of pressure for people in our world today to make the “right” choice. “And the truth is, that’s not the same for everybody. But it’s still ours to choose, and that’s a beautiful thing,” says Osborn. “Having people around us who support us and take the journey with us — that’s what we want. And these characters have that together.”

“The characters in Mamma Mia! are all trying to discover who they are and looking to the past or the future to find answers,” says Fox. “I would say that both approaches fail in the end. What gives our characters real meaning is realizing the beauty of the moment. We can all learn from that.”

Amongst the music and drama, there are also a lot of laughs.

“With secrets being kept and secrets being exposed, of course comedy ensues,” says Osborn.

“I think what I love most about Mamma Mia! is that it allows us not to take ourselves as seriously as we usually do,” says Fox. “We give permission to laugh at the clumsy, silly, chaotic lives we all live at times. I think the magic of laughter and fun can go a long way.”

Mamma Mia!
Tulsa Performing Arts Center
110 E. 2nd St. | Tulsa
Aug. 9-10: 8 p.m.
Aug. 11: 2 p.m.
Aug. 16-17: 8 p.m.
Aug. 18: 2 p.m.
Aug. 23-24: 8 p.m.
Aug. 25: 2 p.m.
Aug. 30-31: 8 p.m.
Sept. 1: 2 p.m.