SALT LAKE CITY — The setting for Sundance Summer Theatre's production of “Mamma Mia!” is breathtaking — literally.
Dianna Graham, who plays the lead role of Donna in an upcoming production of “Mamma Mia!” at the outdoor venue up in Mt. Timpanogos, says there’s something special about performing in the mountain air, even if it makes her job a little harder.
“There's just something really neat about that space and about the energy that the audience is bringing. It's a real privilege, but it's a challenge because of the elevation,” she said. “You get up there and you have to kind of relearn how to breathe. I always notice the elevation right away.”
Combine the thin air, the intense choreography and the technical difficulty of ABBA songs and you've got quite the task for even the most experienced singer.
“It’s super challenging to sing, but it’s just joyful,” Graham said. “We’re having the best time ever.”
'Everybody loves ABBA'
"Mamma Mia!" has drawn large crowds since it premiered 20 years ago in London's West End. The plot follows single mother Donna and her daughter, Sophie, who is preparing for her wedding. At the same time, Sophie is trying to figure out which of the three men her mother met 20 years earlier is her birth father. It's a fun plot, but Graham believes what really keeps people coming back to the production after all of these years is the infectious music.
"ABBA’s kind of timeless. It’s ABBA, and everybody loves ABBA,” she said.
The Swedish pop group seems to be especially popular in Utah, where ABBA tribute bands like Arrival, which recently performed at the Sandy Amphitheater, have become a summer concert staple. For Sundance Mountain Resort, joining in on the ABBA celebration was a great way to also celebrate the resort's 50th anniversary.
"Producers (thought) it would be a great show to do during the 50th anniversary as it is so much fun and so lively with the dancing and music,” said Mari Turner, the resort's program director. “The music is from the '70s and '80s when Sundance was really taking off and the theater was becoming the beloved Sundance tradition that it is today."
Celebrating 50 years, the Sundance resort is leaning into the throwback theme for its production of “Mamma Mia!” — particularly when it comes to the dance numbers, according to choreographer Becky Phillips.
“ABBA music has that disco beat, and it has that '70s, early '80s feel even though the (story) itself isn’t really set in that time period for the most part. But the music really is,” Phillips said. “So we’re looking back, reminiscing, finding movement that reflects the music of that era … and bringing it into the now.”
Through the blend of jazz, disco dance moves and more contemporary musical theater-style dance, Phillips hopes to tap into the retro charm of the show while also embracing the timelessness of the music that really just makes people want to dance.
"I'm hoping that people come and feel like they're at a concert,” she said. “We’re hoping to have everybody on their feet and having a dance party at the end of the show.”
’Move and be moved’
But the catchy pop music is only half of the equation. Wanting the audience to feel connected to the characters, Phillips sums up her goal for the production in four words: "Move and be moved."
“Mamma Mia's!” storyline is one of the reasons Graham, an actress and a mother who has been acting in Utah theaters for more than 20 years, is drawn to the show.
“It’s really joyful and it’s really fun, and then all of a sudden you have all of this pathos in the middle of this jukebox musical with songs like ‘Slipping Through My Fingers’ and 'The Winner Takes It All,’” she said.
The production transforms ABBA's "Slipping Though My Fingers" into a powerful ballad where Donna describes feeling as if she is losing her daughter, Sophie, as she grows up. When Graham sings this song, she says she thinks about her own teenage daughter — coincidentally also named Sophie — who will be a senior in high school.
"It’s kind of amazing when you watch your children grow up, and in a way you feel like you’re losing them. But you’re not! You’re just getting another version of them,” Graham said. “They’re growing into these cool people, and that’s a thrilling and exciting thing to watch."
In fact, all three of the actresses who make up Donna and the Dynamos are in their 40s and are raising teenagers, making the song that much more relatable to them.
“The first time I sang 'Slipping Through My Fingers' with the other actors in the room, we were undone. I felt so embarrassed. I just bawled my eyes out while trying to sing this song,” Graham recalled.
Graham hopes Sundance resort's audiences will also be able to appreciate “a really touching story about a mother and a daughter” — something that can often get lost behind all the catchy pop music, retro choreography and the bright lights of the disco ball.
“I think about (Donna’s) relationship with her daughter, and that was one reason I got so emotional,” Graham continued. “For me, even though there is the romance and the funny conundrum of ‘Who’s the dad?’, the show has so much more to do with the relationship between Donna and Sophie, and that resonates a ton with me.”
If you go …
What: Sundance Summer Theatre’s "Mamma Mia!"
Where: Eccles Outdoor Stage at Sundance Resort, 8841 N. Alpine Loop Road, Sundance
When: July 18-Aug. 10, Monday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights at 8 p.m.
How much: $26-$40, $22-$36 for groups of 20 or more