Spring is here.
No, not the one that stopped by for a couple of days in January, or the one that stuck around for a week and a half in February. It’s the one on the calendar — the one that brings with it American Stage in the Park, a St. Petersburg tradition for more than 30 years and by far the theater company’s biggest annual production.
This time around, American Stage is mounting Mamma Mia!, the ABBA-inspired musical that played on Broadway for 14 years from 2001-2015, grossed an estimated $2 billion worldwide and spawned the hit 2008 musical film starring Meryl Streep, Colin Firth, Pierce Brosnan and Amanda Seyfried, among others. Set on an idyllic Greek isle on the eve of a fairy-tale wedding, the show tells the story of a bride to be who, having never met her father, invites the three most likely candidates to her nuptials, which of course causes no small amount of uproar among herself, her mother, the potential pops and pretty much everybody else. It’s an all-singing, all-dancing spectacle of comedy, melodrama, true hearts’ desires and the ties that bind.
You know — no big deal.
Helming this behemoth is American Stage CEO and Producing Artistic Director Stephanie Gularte; it’s not her first time directing a show while also, er, running a large chunk of the other side of the whole show, but it is her first park production.
“It’s a mammoth undertaking on many levels, not just the size of the production but the entirety of it — we create a venue and we’re outside and there are so many things about this undertaking that are unique and can be a little bit daunting,” she says. “But this is my fifth production [as producing artistic director], so I knew I could really count on an amazing team to support me to keep me from tripping up too much.”
She wouldn’t have it any other way, however — the theatrical side of things is as important to Gularte as keeping American Stage on the right track and delivering all manner of entertaining, inspiring and provocative art to the public.
“It’s an important part of maintaining my sensibility, doing that part of the work, which is really the core of the organization,” she says. “I’m always trying to keep them in balance. [Doing theater] is where I started, that’s where my passion is, and I would personally miss it a lot... Even when making business decisions I’m staying really close to the art.”
In addition to the American Stage management team, she’s got a support system on the creative side as well, and is able to rely and draw on the experiences of AS in the Park veterans.
One such veteran is Choreographer and Assistant Director Shain Stroff.
“He is just a tremendous part of what we’re doing in the park,” says Gularte. “I can’t say enough good things about him.”
This is Stroff’s fourth year choreographing American Stage in the Park. He’s based in Jacksonville, and makes the trek down to St. Pete each year for the six-week commitment to the Demens Landing shows.
“It’s such an experience, that’s why I love coming back to St. Petersburg to do the show,” he says. “You really feel it in the audience, it’s a special kind of energy you don’t really feel anywhere else.”
When it came to Mamma Mia!, with its wealth of well-worn source material, Stroff could’ve studied the Broadway production and the movie and lifted whatever he thought right for the St. Pete show. Instead, he held off revisiting what came before, and he and Gularte got together to make the themes they wanted to explore the jumping-off point.
“I had seen the show five or six years ago, and I saw the movie when it first came out,” says Stroff. “But I didn’t want to go back and look at either one until I had my own take on it.
Once he and Gularte were on the same page, though, he “ran with it.”
The story and beloved songs remain intact, of course, as does the sort of modern sensibility that helps define certain elements of the Broadway musicals of recent decades: sophisticated storytelling, a more song-driven narrative, and a vibe to the choreography that’s much different than that of the classics that came before.
“It’s contemporary, story-driven, very sexy and romantic and high-energy,” Stroff says. “Those different levels of storytelling that are threaded into the choreography were such a pleasure to do.”
It’s that energy that keeps audiences flocking to the park at land’s end to see each American Stage in the Park production — and hopefully inspires them to see what else American Stage has to offer.
“American Stage in the Park is an opportunity to really celebrate as a community, celebrate the arts, celebrate community in and of itself, there’s a different approach to what we set out to do,” says Gularte. “We really want people to come out and have a great time and experience high-quality theater... but we also hope people will come over to our main stage for something that’s more intimate, more provocative.”
At the end of the day, though — or, perhaps more accurately, the night — Gularte, Stroff and the entire cast and crew of American Stage in the Park want this tremendous effort to move the crowds that Demens Park, both emotionally and physically.
“We really hope to get people out of their seats,” says Stroff. “One of our themes in our show is about exploring relationships and family — whatever that family is, surrounding yourself with people you care about and value. We hope everybody leaves feeling like they’ve just left this wedding, making a bunch of new friends.”
“We always want our audiences to appreciate the artistry, the talents involved,” Gularte says. “But with this one there’s such a tremendous spirit of joy and defining what family is for you... I’m imagining the audience on their feet with people they met at the show, dancing with strangers and friends, and feeling like one big rock concert family out there.”
(CORRECTION: In our April 11 print issue, we misidentified actress Alison Burns, who plays mother Donna, as actress Julia Rifino, who plays daughter Sophie. CL regrets the error. —ed)
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