Great Lakes Bay musical magic: The making of Mamma Mia!

Three theatres, two identical and scaled stage sets, 38 performers, 122 theatre artists and volunteers, 120 hours of rehearsal and 400 wardrobe items is what it took to create the first ever collaborative theatre performance in the Great Lakes Bay Region. In the end, more than 8,000 theatre-goers and 250 students will see the production of Mamma Mia!

Shows were held at the Midland Center for the Arts and Pit & Balcony Community Theatre in Saginaw. Before the public shows (held between September 20-29), the Bay City Players hosted workshops to spark interest in the production as well as to foster further development of regional community theatre talent.

Here are some of the behind the scenes efforts it took to pull the show off.

“A production this big and with this much collaboration between events hadn’t been done before in the region,” says Tommy Wedge, director and assistant professor of theatre at Saginaw Valley State University. “We worked with all three theatres to take the culture and best practices from each and make something new.”

Over 120 hours of rehearsal practice went into the production.

It also involved logistical details as well, like merging all three ticket offices for the event, which was aided by the production team months in advance.

“Rehearsal also began months in advance, with choreography up first, as we worked with Jennifer Hopkins, out of Washington D.C.” says Wedge. “And we had to switch things up to adjust to her time schedule, fitting all of the choreography lessons within the span of two weeks, as she was about to give birth. With everyone’s flexibility we were able to pull it off as long as we worked out of sequence.

“We are blessed to have a tremendous and varied degree of actors and talent with the production,” says Wedge. “We have everything from people that have toured internationally with theatre productions and a number of the cast and crew are area high school students, as well as seven students from SVSU and one from Central Michigan University.”

Many people worked behind the scenes to pull the production off flawlessly.

Wedge has various types of training for physical movement in productions, but the effort involved new training as well. Started around 2016, Intimacy Directors International helps train actors and directors for emotional safety and Wedge participated in intimacy training this summer in preparation for the show.

“It was a new experience and something that came about a few years ago and exploded with the Me Too movement.”

As for impact, Wedge says that there hasn’t been one defining moment in the process that has made an imprint on him.

Backstage getting ready in wardrobe and makeup.

“The show has been a series of mini-discoveries all along the way and some days were just baby steps, one day at a time. We’ve built on that over time and it’s been tremendous to see the incremental growth in everyone over the past few months and see the 20,000-foot view at the end,” he says. “Like Holly, who plays Donna in the lead role – she is naturally on the quiet side and this is her first major lead, seeing her transform throughout this process has been amazing. It’s moments like that adding up over time to create something great.”

While Holly Booth might be new to the lead role, she is no stranger to theatre production. Booth has been actively involved with Midland Center for the Arts since her oldest daughter (who is now in college) started doing shows with the Center’s Peanut Gallery. Booth first worked as a backstage helper, then as a production coordinator helping direct parent volunteers.

Holly Booth, on stage in the lead role of Donna.

“I had been in other productions in smaller roles, and when I told my daughters that I was thinking of auditioning for Mamma Mia, everything that I have ever encouraged and told them about just giving something a try… they repeated right back to me,” Booth says with a chuckle. “So, I auditioned, and I made it.”

“From a storyline perspective, what really hit home for me was the relationship between the mom and the daughter and the process of letting your child go off into the world – it really tugs at your heartstrings,” says Booth. “And as a mom with two girls that are about to go off on their own soon, I can relate.”

By day, Booth is a teacher with Midland County Educational Service, working with kids ranging from kindergarten through fifth grade with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

The production includes over 122 theatre artists and volunteers.

To prepare for her lead role, Booth worked with both an acting and vocal coach in order to fine tune her goals for what her character wanted to get out of each scene. Booth also got back into running to help with her vocal strength. Her favorite thing about the whole effort has been the camaraderie that the cast and crew has developed with each other.

“It’s been a pretty intense experience with the whole group,” Booth says. “Many of us are dealing with our full-times jobs, prepping for the show, some of the cast has been sick and more. The week prior is often referred to as ‘Hell Week’ with preparation, rehearsal and the show, but it has not been stressful at all, there has been so many hugs, laughs and the whole crew just enjoying the process.”

Cast members of Mamma Mia!

With a busy production schedule, multiple theatres, working professionals, rehearsal times sometimes had to fit in wherever possible. One time rehearsal even convened at the time Midland Center for the Arts was closing, so the group had to improvise and proceeded with rehearsal in the parking lot to fit it in.”

Behind the scenes, the crew worked through numerous details and components to make sure the hard work of the cast shined through. For Peggy Mead-Finizio, Mamma Mia’s lighting designer and assistant professor of theatre at Saginaw Valley State University, planning and preparation started well in advance.

Mead-Finizio brings experience from many noteworthy performances including the dance program at Hollins University in Roanoke, VA, the Flint School of Performing Arts and the spring dance concert at Juilliard, which she just wrapped up in May 2019. Mamma Mia! is her first show with both Midland Center for the Arts and Pit & Balcony Theatre.

Two identical sets were built to scale at Midland Center for the Arts and Pit & Balcony Theatre in Saginaw.

Lighting is important in visually telling the story when it comes to choreography, capturing emotion and putting context to the time of day in the scene. Mead-Finizio has the advantage of working with intelligent, pre-programmed lights at Midland Center for the Arts.

The lighting plan started about a month prior, with Peggy attending rehearsals, reading through the script, going over the lighting inventory and laying out a lighting plan, which was then programmed into the light board.

Lighting shades, softness and more are achieved with the help of lighting gel, which is heat-resistant plastic placed in front of the light in a variety of combinations to create any number of shades, hard or soft light.

Crew members backstage during a show of Mamma Mia!

“We have over 100 cues in Mamma Mia! that had to be planned for,” says Mead-Finizio.

“I’ve always wanted to work on this production and the collaboration with Bailey Banks, the assistant lighting designer was amazing. We didn’t know each other before this project and we would not have been able to pull it off without one another.”

For Natalie Slawnyk, who plays Tanya, Mamma Mia! is her 37th production overall and her third with Midland Center for the Arts this year, as she was recently cast in The Women as well as Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Slawnyk, who works as a senior auditor at Dow, does various shows in her spare time around the Great Lakes Bay Region.

Natalie Slawnyk applies makeup before going on stage as Tanya.

“This is the first show where I’ve needed to be in stilettos the whole time and the choreography has really been amped up,” says Slawnyk. “And my character needs to be just as active as the others, who are almost always in flat shoes, so that brings some challenging aspects to it. To help prepare, I ran more this summer to help build lung capacity for the constant dancing, moving and singing.”

Costume repair and alterations happen in real time when needed.

“We learned the choreography before most things, some people hadn’t even learned all the songs yet,” says Slawnyk. “Prior to this, I really only knew Dancing Queen out of the whole show.”

From a logistics perspective, the regional production of events took nothing short of an army.

A good luck note from the lighting and production team hangs backstage.

“This was such a huge collaboration and team effort, it’s hard to fathom everyone who had a helping hand,” says Slawnyk. “There are so many things that goes into the final show, and plenty of unsung heroes behind the scenes, like costume design and alterations.”

“We have over 400 costumes and having that all organized, repaired when needed and run backstage is such a huge effort,” says Slawnyk. “At times we have really tight windows to change, like in the last scene. Between the wedding and last scene, we have to get into our super suits in 90 seconds flat.”

When opening night came, the cast and crew knew they had prepared well and were ready for an audience.

“The night before the first show, there was such a huge amount of excitement in the green room,” says Slawnyk. “It was the feeling that we had all of the pieces in place from all the work that went into it – and now we are ready for an audience.”

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Read more articles by Courtney Soule.

Courtney is a longtime Midland resident and enjoys telling the story of the community's evolution. She ran Catalyst Midland as the publication's managing editor from October 2017 through September 2020. Her favorite topics are interesting people, change makers, outdoor recreation and design. Aside from Catalyst, her published work can be found various places including Elephant Journal, Thought Catalog and a number of other websites, papers, menus and the occasional one-liner.