116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
After spending the winter in Russia, Christopher Okiishi of Iowa City said he’s thrilled to be spending the summer in Greece.
A familiar face on The Corridor arts scene, Okiishi is doing a turnabout from directing “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812,” an intensely complex musical based on a portion of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.” After helming that sold-out show for Riverside Theatre in Iowa City, from winter rehearsals to a spring opening, he’s taking his first Theatre Cedar Rapids directing turn, leading a cast of super troupers on a lively romp through “Mamma Mia!” onstage from June 24 to July 31.
What: “Mamma Mia!”
Where: Theatre Cedar Rapids, 102 Third St. SE, Cedar Rapids
When: June 24 to July 31, 2022; 7:30 p.m. Thursday to Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $22 to $49, TCR Box Office, (319) 366-8591 or theatrecr.org/event/mamma-mia/2022-06-24/
The two shows could not be more different. One is stunning in its complexity, and the other typically has audiences dancing in the aisles.
“ ‘The Great Comet’ is a masterpiece of carefully constructed words and music,” Okiishi said. “And ‘Mamma Mia’ has a totally different goal — and that is to entertain and delight, and to not make you think too hard.”
It’s a story of love and perseverance built around the music of ABBA, which emerged from Stockholm in 1972 and dominated the pop charts and disco dance floors for a decade.
“The plot is a fantasy about inheriting an island in Greece, and trying to build a hotel on that island as a young single mom — and then having all of the sacrifices and choices you've made in order to get there, converge on the island in one weekend,” Okiishi said.
Without giving away all the plot points, he noted that “the biggest twist is the mom, Donna, who has built this hotel, isn't sure who the father of her daughter, Sophie, is. And that is the big mystery of the play, as all three men who are possibly dads come back, invited to Sophie's wedding.”
Other guests show up, including Donna’s long-ago musical girl-group friends; Donna’s past loves; and Sophie’s fiance and their friends — none of whom knows what they’re in for as the plots thicken to lively beats and ballads.
“I think the entire point of the production is to make people feel the extremes of love, devotion and family,” said Okiishi, a psychiatrist.
“Those themes are so universal and so part of our fabric — attaching it to pop music and attaching it to memories of beautiful places — that it's been joyful to visit Greece for the summer with ABBA after being in Russia through the winter, which was also joyful in a whole different way, but (joy) wasn’t the point of that show,” he added with a laugh.
Name of the game
Because the “Mamma Mia!” writers created a story around existing songs in 1999, more than a decade after ABBA initially dissolved in 1982, the show has been deemed a jukebox musical.
That label “isn’t necessarily a bad thing,” Okiishi said. “It doesn't mean it's not a good show. I think they've been really careful about how they placed the songs in the plot so that the emotions you get from the songs are the same as the characters’."
He’s seen it six times — three times on Broadway, during two national tours, and the Old Creamery Theatre’s 2019 production in Amana — so he knows the show inside out. He said it’s the kind of production that’s accessible to artists from high school and college to community theaters and professional troupes.
“I think it is the best parts of musical theater, in that you come and feel a depth of emotion that only music can give you,” he said, “and then you have this beautiful release of dancing in the aisles at the end.”
He’s secretly hoping that viewers will save the singalong and aisle dancing for the show’s three built-in encores: “Mamma Mia,” “Dancing Queen” and “Waterloo,” but he realizes some audience members may not be able to hold back.
Janelle Lauer of Cedar Rapids, who does double-duty playing the title role of mamma Donna and serving as the show’s musical director, agrees that audience members — especially those who grew up with the music — won’t be able to suppress their inner ABBA.
“I said to Chris, ‘We should totally have TCR do a singalong night.’ I said that out loud and then I went, 'Oh, that's a stupid idea, because every night is going to be a singalong.’ I fully anticipate that people are going to be standing up and dancing,” Lauer said.
“I just think it's a joyful, fun show — not that there aren't dramatic moments — but I think it is something that is really needed right now.”
It’s something she needed, too.
Lauer, who raises the roof whenever she performs, is a classically trained singer known in the region for belting the blues, rock ’n’ roll, and anything else she typically sings with SPT Theatre and in past Divapalooza concerts.
“I'm a firm believer in whatever song it is that you're singing, you need to deliver the message of the song and the emotion of the song,” she said. “It's the same concept. It's just a different way of singing it.”
But it’s been a long time since she’s been onstage in a musical theater production, instead of playing keyboards and leading the orchestra in the pit.
She already was onboard to music direct “Mamma Mia!” from the time TCR originally slated the show to hit the stage the summer of 2020
“We had already cast the show,” she said. “We had our very first meeting, where we read through the show, we listened to the music, we got all the information from everybody, and then everything shut down. That was all the further we got.”
Then around December 2021, she said TCR decided to put the show in this year’s summer slot, and emailed the cast to see who was still interested and available to do their roles. Some had gone off to college, others had moved away or had other time commitments.
“And so we had to replace nearly half of the cast, which is the same thing that happened to ‘Kinky Boots.’ They had to replace a lot of their cast, too,” she noted.
“Mamma Mia!” lost two of the three Dynamos, “and Chris turned to me and said, ‘I think you should play Donna,’ and I went, ‘What?’ So that was how that went down,” Lauer said.
“That was not originally how that was supposed to work, and believe me, I had a lot of trepidation about it.”
Sure, she’s been the musical director for about 70 shows since 2009, but the last time she was in a show was “Flight of the Lawnchair Man” in 2010, a Cedar Rapids Opera production at Theatre Cedar Rapids.
Not only was she worried about being able to memorize lines again, the thought of being onstage in a jumpsuit made her want to rush to the nearest gym. But then reality set in.
“At some point I went, ‘I'm 52 years old, I'm never gonna get a chance to do this again, most likely, because it's not what I normally do. However, this is what a 52-year-old body looks like, and so I'm just gonna embrace the show with as much joy as I can possibly do.’ ”
She’s finding plenty of joy, thanks to an understanding cast and Forrest Green, her “right-hand man” in the pit since “Sweeney Todd,” who has been coming in to play keyboards for rehearsals for several weeks.
“I will tell you that it is very difficult for me to take off my music director hat, because that's just what I am used to doing,” Lauer said, recalling a rehearsal where the ensemble missed their entrance on a song, so she stopped singing her notes and started singing theirs.
She warned them: “Look, I'll never be able to take off my (music director) hat. However, I'm hoping that this is the last time I have to remind you guys of anything, so that I can just throw on the Donna hat and focus on doing that.”
Fortunately, she said everyone has been really supportive of her dual tasks.
“It's great for me to have that, so I know at least they understand when I'm having to switch hats back and forth,” she said. “I don't believe anyone is holding that against me. It just is what it is. It's just a completely different way of working.”
Okiishi is quick to sing Lauer’s praises for her ability to play the lead while leading the show’s musical path.
“That has been such a wonderful development,” he said. “I don't know that she'll always work this way, but being literally embedded in the show, she can hear sound in a way that most music directors don't ever get the chance to do.“
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