This time of year, many performing arts groups either offer Louisville a holiday classic or take the month of December off.
Acting Against Cancer (AAC) is bucking the trend by offering December theater-goers the smash hit jukebox-show-turned-movie “Mamma Mia,” a musical that has nothing to do with the winter holidays whatsoever.
The 1999 musical is based on the hits of Swedish pop band ABBA and has an advantage over a lot of other jukebox musicals.
In the ’80s, ABBA members Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus cut their theatrical teeth on an incredible musical called “Chess.” So they had plenty of experience and used it to help usher “Mamma Mia” to the stage.
For whatever reason, the musical has enjoyed great popularity, telling the story of Sophie, a young woman attempting to locate her long lost birth father. She invites three likely candidates, whose identities have been gleaned from reading her mom’s old journals, to a sunny island in the Mediterranean.
Insider caught up with AAC Artistic Director Remy Sisk to talk about counter-programming, finding our families, and how maybe something not Christmas is the perfect thing for Christmastime.
Before the show landed on AAC’s season schedule, it had an important place in Sisk’s heart.
“It was actually one of the first Broadway musicals I ever saw, and my mom and I — over the last 15 years — have seen ‘Mamma Mia’ in any form that we can,” says Sisk. “When the movies come out, we go together; when the show comes through, we’ve gone; we saw it on Broadway a couple of times.”
So the musical was on the company’s to-do list for many years. Then while scheduling for the Henry Clay Theatre, which is primarily occupied by core companies Pandora Productions, Bunbury and The Liminal Playhouse, Sisk saw an opening for a December and early January production. He thought of “Mamma Mia” for several reasons.
“It is by far one of the most family-friendly shows we’ve ever done,” he says. “It’s a really fun musical at a time of year that can be really stressful.”
But he wasn’t sure if it was a good idea.
“It seemed at first a little scary,” he admits. “Like, are you crazy enough to do a show over Christmas?”
When Sisk made his decision and it was announced, he got some pushback from the theater community.
“We definitely had people who not only were skeptical, but almost offended we would do this summery, sunny musical over the holidays,” he says. “Maybe they thought we were being sacrilegious against ‘Christmas Carol’? But I just don’t understand that.”
Sisk stood firm in his decision, convinced that “Mamma Mia” was something people would appreciate before and after Christmas Day.
“There can be the dreary post-holiday blues, with some depression, and we’ve got a bright, sunny dance party to come to. As non-holiday as it is, it’s what someone might be looking for when it’s bleak and dark at 5 p.m.,” says Sisk.
But the biggest reason to offer “Mamma Mia” is that its themes of finding and loving your family are a perfect reflection of what we should feel this time of year, no matter what kind of family we have around us.
“It’s about a mother and daughter — that are definitely related — but also all these other characters come in and create a found family,” Sisk explains. “Whoever you surround yourself with, whoever you make a connection with, whatever love you develop with another human being, that can be your family.”
While Sisk is lucky enough to have a “Mamma Mia”-loving mamma to spend time with, plenty of people don’t have members of the traditional nuclear family around to celebrate with, and he says this musical honors those folks.
“I love sending that message out at this time of year,” he says. “While some people are fortunate enough to have families at home that are welcoming to them, a lot don’t. Or a lot have grown apart from their family. So to come here and see a show that celebrates families and whatever that means to the person watching is a really beautiful thing this time of year.”
Acting Against Cancer’s production of “Mamma Mia” runs from Dec. 21 to Jan. 8 at the Henry Clay Theatre, 604 S. Third St. Tickets are $22 and are available online or at the door.
This feature has been updated to correct information regarding the Henry Clay Theatre.