'Mama Mia' opens month-long run at Lions Wilderness Park Amphitheater

Four Corners Musical Theatre Company happy to be back on stage

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
  • "Mama Mia" will be performed at 8 p.m. each Thursday through Sunday through Aug. 1.
  • Productions will take place at the Lions Wilderness Park Amphtheater, 5800 College Blvd.
  • Call 505-599-1148 or visit fmtn.org for tickets.

FARMINGTON — Choreographer Sarah Harkness keeps using the word "cinematic" to describe the atmosphere around the Four Corners Musical Theatre Company production of "Mama Mia!," which opens Thursday, July 8 at the Lions Wilderness Park Amphitheater in Farmington.

If you spend more than a few minutes on the set, it's not hard to see why.

Director Randy West has pulled out all the stops to help "Mama Mia!" transcend the usual boundaries of a stage production. In fact, it feels more like a summer blockbuster film, with West making good use of as many of the natural features of the amphitheater's surroundings as he possibly could.

But the director said his production has one thing going for it that his Hollywood competition doesn't.

"The difference between this and a summer movie is the people (on stage) that are here feel the energy of the audience, and the audience feels the energy of the performers," he said. "And the energy that's exchanged is up in the air."

'We're excited':Theater Ensemble Arts plans August production at Lions Wilderness Park Amphitheater

Harkness agreed.

"It's the best of both worlds," she said. "And this is the perfect musical for us to come back with."

Maybe it's the elaborate sets and surroundings, or maybe it's the fact that most of the people associated with the production haven't worked before a live audience since the COVID-19 pandemic began. But members of the cast and crew alike agree that the energy in this production is different than many of them have ever experienced.

"The best part of this is, every person you're on stage with is as invested as you are (in making the production a success)," said Four Corners Musical Theatre Company veteran Matt Aaron, who portrays Sam Carmichael in the production. "It's not always that way. Sometimes you're on stage with people you don't really trust. That leads to the scary, nightmare stories you hear about. But there's incredible energy here."

Emma Price, left, Natalie Szczerba and Kelsey Beer rehearse a scene from the Four Corners Musical Theatre Company production of "Mama Mia!" opening July 8 at the Lions Wilderness Park Amphitheater in Farmington.

A unique presentation

West knew from the time he scheduled the show at the amphitheater that he wanted to do something special with the venue, and he believes he has accomplished that. His goal was to capitalize on the natural surroundings to create a unique presentation of the show, a jukebox musical based on the songs of the band ABBA that has been enormously popular with regional and community theater companies since it premiered more than 20 years ago.

West has overseen the construction of some impressive sets, but he also has figured out a way to incorporate the rustic backdrop of the amphitheater into the production. The large sandstone formations behind the sets have been illuminated with LED lighting, and West even has some of his cast members climbing down from the rocks at one point in the show to make their entrance.

Additionally, a trench with running water was dug into the expansive dirt stage to represent a stream, while the rest of the set includes a dock, a two-story building with a terrace, a fountain with running water, a bridge, a beach and a taverna set on a turntable. West also hired a live, four-piece band to perform ABBA's music rather than relying on a recorded soundtrack.

Pandemic recovery:Ceremony marks end of Totah Theater renovation, celebrates return of live shows soon

The cast of the Four Corners Musical Theatre Company production of "Mama Mia!" runs through a dance number during a rehearsal on July 6 at the Lions Wilderness Park Amphitheater.

"I think we integrated the whole show into Sandstone," West said, looking around the set before putting his cast and crew through one of its final rehearsals earlier this week.

"Mama Mia!" takes place on a small Greek island, and that Mediterranean setting was well matched to the amphitheater. But West acknowledged some minor modifications were necessary.

"Just subtle reminders that we're not desert like, we're island like," he said.

The confines of the amphitheater have presented some challenges, as well. Harkness noted that the dirt stage slopes downward toward the audience, requiring an adjustment from her dancers, who are accustomed to working on a flat, polished surface.

Clockwise from upper left: Gareth West, Delphon Curtis Jr., Kelsey Beer, Margaret Clair and Emma Price are featured in the Four Corners Musical Theatre Company production of "Mama Mia!" at the Lions Wilderness Park Amphitheater in Farmington.

Fortunately, she said, the costume requirements for "Mama Mia!" — consisting primarily of beach wear — allow the actors to get away with wearing sneakers instead of dance shoes. But that hasn't kept the dancers from winding up with shoes full of sand every night by the time rehearsal is over.

Harkness, who first worked with West when she was only 14, cited another significant physical difference. During the fall and spring, she teaches at Santa Fe College in Gainesville, Florida, which is located below sea level. The difference in altitude — and oxygen — between her home and here has been very noticeable, she said, as she puts her dancers through their paces.

Gareth West and choreographer Sarah Harkness work on a dance number during a July 6 rehearsal at the Lions Wilderness Park Amphitheater for a production of "Mama Mia!"

"It's a completely different beast," she said, smiling.

Coupled with the summertime heat in San Juan County, which sometimes has reached triple digits since rehearsals began, Harkness said her experience here has been, well, memorable.

"It's been grueling," she said. "But it's been great to work that hard."

Getting the gang back together

Other members of the cast, especially the members of the professional Four Corners Musical Theatre Company, are more familiar with Farmington, having already performed a couple of shows here. But this is the company's first production at the amphitheater, and that has made it different for them.

Matt Aaron and Margaret Clair appear in a scene from the Four Corners Musical Theatre Company production of "Mama Mia!" opening July 8 at the Lions Wilderness Park Amphitheater in Farmington.

Aaron is no stranger to outdoor summer theater work, as he once spent two years working in that environment in North Carolina. His experience in Farmington has been a comparative cakewalk, he said, explaining that the characters for the North Carolina production were Eastern European and were clad in heavy, woolen costumes — not the kind of outfit you want to wear in hot, muggy conditions.

Aaron is thrilled to be back on stage, explaining that he spent the pandemic hunkered down in his New Jersey home wondering if he would ever work again. When he got the call from West letting him know that the production of "Mama Mia!" was a go, he was ecstatic.

"I couldn't pack my bags fast enough," he said.

More:Amphitheater will welcome three shows, including relaunch of musical theater company

Emma Price and Gareth West, right, lead the "Mama Mia!" ensemble through a rehearsal of a musical number  on July 6 at Lions Wilderness Park Amphitheater.

Nick Drivas, a New Yorker who portrays Sky in the show, is another company veteran. He was fortunate enough to continue to find regular work during the pandemic, most notably portraying Fonzie in a musical production of "Happy Days" that traveled throughout Florida and Pennsylvania.

But he, too, was eager to return to Farmington and resume working with the other regular members of the company — Aaron, Margaret Clair and Natalie Szczerba — who have been with the troupe since it was founded in the fall of 2019.

"It's nice to get the gang back together," he said.

At the other end of the spectrum, Kelsey Beer — a recent Piedra Vista High School graduate who will attend the University of New Mexico in the fall — is a Farmington resident who is making her Four Corners Musical Theatre Company debut. She plays Ali in the production and long has been a fan of both the theatrical and film version of "Mama Mia!"

Natalie Szczerba stars in the Four Corners Musical Theatre Company production of "Mama Mia!" opening July 8 at the Lions Wilderness Park Amphitheater.

"I've enjoyed just getting to know all the crazy talented people and getting to know people with the same interests as me," she said of the experience.

Despite their youth, both Drivas and Beer said they were exposed to the music of ABBA — a legendary Swedish pop group that reached the height of its popularity in the late 1970s — through their parents. The group's music is a big part of why they are both so fond of the show.

"I grew up on that," Beer said, describing her mother's devotion to the band. "That's all I listen to now."

"Mama Mia" will be performed at 8 p.m. each Thursday through Sunday through Aug. 1 at the amphitheater, 5800 College Blvd. Tickets are $12 and $15. Call 505-599-1148 or visit fmtn.org.

Margaret Clair, Nick Drivas and Tena Edlin rehearse a scene from the Four Corners Musical Theatre Company production of "Mama Mia!" at the Lions Wilderness Park Amphitheater in Farmington on July 6.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription.