AUDIENCES will have the time of their lives watching the latest production of “Mamma Mia!” in Los Angeles, featuring a predominantly Filipino American cast.
This rendition of the beloved jukebox musical comes from East West Players (EWP), the nation’s longest-running professional theater of color and largest creator of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) performance work in the country.
The two-hour musical, directed by Producing Artistic Director Snehal Desai, musical direction by Marc Macalintal and choreography by Preston Mui, officially opened on May 16 and will run until June 9. [Editor’s Note: The production has since been extended until Sunday, June 23.]
The casting calls started in January and (unintentionally) resulted in actors of Filipino descent filling 12 out of 17 roles, including stage veteran Joan Almedilla, singer/songwriter AJ Rafael and pop and R&B singer Jules Aurora.
“It is a production often diversely cast but rarely has it been performed with all of the principal roles, and in our case, the entire company being artists of color,” Desai writes in the program.
“Mamma Mia!” rounds out EWP’s 53rd anniversary season themed “Culture Shock” to highlight narratives that go against the status quo.
“It’s at East West Players, where I’ve been able to stretch my acting abilities because all the projects have been so different, whether they’re plays, musicals, comedies, or one-night shows,” Almedilla shared with the Asian Journal about her excitement to join another show with the organization.
Taking Swedish pop group ABBA’s timeless hits, “Mamma Mia!” — with music and lyrics by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus and book by Catherine Johnson — tells the story of 20-year-old Sophie Sheridan (Korean American Grace Yoo) in search of her biological father.
She invites three men, Sam Carmichael (Alan Ariano), Harry Bright (Danny Bernardo) and Bill Austin (Michael Palma), to the fictional Greek island of Kalokairi for her wedding based off clues from her mother Donna’s (Almedilla) diary.
Immediately in “Honey, Honey,” sung by bright-eyed and curious Sophie and her bridesmaids Lisa (Jules Aurora) and Ali (Nicole Santiago), the musical starts off in an energetic beat, making you itch to sing and dance along.
We get introduced to Donna, who in “Money, Money, Money” vulnerably expresses her exhaustion of running the island hotel solo for the past 20 years, as well as her best friends, “lone wolf” Rosie Mulligan (Elvira Barjau) and thrice divorcée Tanya Chesham-Leigh (Anthea Neri) who are in town for the wedding.
Almedilla — who was last on the EWP stage in “Criers of Hire” and was recently Lady Thiang in the Broadway national tour of the “The King And I” — takes on the strong-willed, layered character of Donna who must fight the tensions of letting her daughter go and reminders of her past life and loves.
“Donna is very much dedicated to raising her child and making sure she has a strong mind and strong view,” Almedilla said. “As a mom myself, you want to raise your child for the world. That’s what I identify with her. She has a lot of energy and is trying to live a good life, but she must also learn the art of letting go.”
Act I features the ABBA tunes we’ve hummed along to for so long, from “Thank You For the Music” — which establishes a relationship among Sophie and her possible dads — and “Chiquitita” and “Dancing Queen,” which show Donna, Rosie and Tanya’s everlasting sisterhood as “Donna and the Dynamos.”
Along the way, the plot thickens as Sam, Harry and Bill discover the real reason they were invited to the island and each grapple with the possibility of having an adult daughter, while the impending wedding stirs a rush of emotions among the various characters.
What makes EWP’s staging of “Mamma Mia!” spectacular beyond the cast itself is the culturally relevant details, from a surprise Filipino dance (no spoilers here!) to Sophie and her friends toting red fans during “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!” to the male characters clad in barongs during the wedding scene.
“We’re literally breathing new life into this production that’s been done time and time again because you don’t see an Asian Sophie or an Asian Donna,” Yoo shared with the Asian Journal. “It’s very empowering for the audiences to see our spin on the story because what you see is a reflection. You’re seeing representation and that’s why the crowd goes wild when you see our sprinkles of Asian culture.”
For those who have seen the movie or Broadway staging, this performance of “Mamma Mia” shows that you don’t have to alter the script or song lyrics to make it more fitting to a particular group.
“When we were told there was going to be a Filipino touch to the show, we thought, ‘Are we allowed to do that?’ I thought it was a brilliant idea because why not? It’s been done so many times and it can’t just be a robotic, traditional show. If you’re allowed to, then go ahead and make it your own culture,” Almedilla said, adding that the music and story fit the Filipino slant because entertainment is so ingrained in the culture.
In “Thank You for the Music,” for example, Yoo’s Sophie continues to sing the original lyric, “I’ve been so lucky, I am the girl with golden hair.”
“What East West is really great about is bringing all the Asian cultures together, so it’s very much told through the Asian American experience. All of the choices Snehal made show that you don’t have to change any of the text,” Bernardo said. “‘Thank you for the Music’ is one of my favorite numbers as the message of the song is so beautiful. It shows the importance of art in your life. I learned how to play guitar for this song, so it’s an extra moment of pride for me.”
Act II begins with the aftermath of pre-wedding festivities — everything happening on the island starts to haunt Sophie in fever dream-like number “Under Attack” while Donna and Sam revisit their relationship in “SOS.”
Popular Fil-Am singer AJ Rafael as Pepper shows his singing and acting chops in a steamy scene alongside Neri in “Does Your Mother Know.”
“Getting into the role was tough because Pepper is usually done by an acrobatic person who can do the splits. The director let me play along and almost be myself,” Rafael told the Asian Journal following the opening night performance. “The choreographer helped me shape the role into my take on it and I lost the pressure that I was putting on myself.”
Neri, whose credits include “Next to Normal” and “Here Lies Love,” added that she wanted to add “depth” to her role as Tanya. “I wanted to bring depth to her as a woman who’s trying to find love, has a lot of money. I played around with that and didn’t want her to be a flat character that has funny lines, but she’s a human and wants to connect and has girlfriends who have her back,” she said.
In “Slipping Through My Fingers,” Donna and Sophie have one last intimate mother-daughter moment as the wedding nears. For Almedilla, performing that song gives a “lump in your throat kind of discomfort,” she said.
“That song just hits me…and it’s emotional. I don’t know how I’m able to get through that every night,” Almedilla said. “It’s very raw and it keeps me on my toes to not sit and be comfortable. But then I love it so much because that’s when you see [Donna’s] vulnerability.”
Fil-Ams also part of the cast are Kevin Trinio Perdido as Eddie, Ala Tiatia as Father Alexandrios, and Steven Agdeppa and Edelyn Okano in the ensemble.
“I also love the Fil-Am spin East West [Players] puts on the show — it makes it so personal and relatable. There are a lot of elements that remind me of my family and upbringing,” Aurora said. “I think that’s what makes it show unique and special especially for the Filipino community.”
Though the story ends with “I Have a Dream” as Sophie and Sky (Max Torres) venture off, the encore numbers of “Mamma Mia,” “Dancing Queen” and “Waterloo” will invite audience participation and encourage everyone to let loose and dance after sitting for two hours.
“Bring your entire family and laugh, cry and have a great time together. You’re going to sing, dance and feel something, whether it’s remembering your childhood growing up in the Philippines or here in America. There’s that longing to belong. This is a great place to connect through the music of ABBA and the stories that remind us of our parents’ sacrifices,” Almedilla said.
Mamma Mia! at East West Players runs until June 9 at the David Henry Hwang Theater at the Union Center of the Arts in Little Tokyo with shows from Thursday to Saturday at 8 p.m. plus 2 p.m. matinees on Saturday and Sunday. Tickets can be purchased at www.eastwestplayers.org.