“Honey, honey, how you thrill me, uh huh, honey honey,” Kirsten Lerner sings, sitting on the edge of a dock and swaying back and forth.
Caitlin Wolford and Rachel Mullen peer over her shoulder as she points out a particularly juicy passage in the diary she’s holding.
“I’d heard about you before,” she sings. “I wanted to know some more.”
Soon, as Lerner — playing soon-to-be-married Sophie Sheridan — continued the ABBA song, Wolford and Mullen joined in.
“Honey, honey, let me feel it, uh huh,” the trio sings, gathered close to see the writing on the diary.
Or maybe they’re peering so intently at a totally blank page in the notebook. That’s the magic of acting — the audience willingly suspends disbelief, happy to believe in fiction for a couple of hours.
And actors are the magicians that make a story real.
Starting Thursday, Lodi Musical Theatre will be casting some magic of its own with “Mamma Mia!” The troupe’s first production since “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” will celebrate the music of ABBA through Sept. 1 at the Tillie Lewis Theater at San Joaquin Delta College.
“There’s not a weak moment in the show,” director Nicole Howton said. “It’s just phenomenal from start to finish.”
Finding a new home
For 25 years, Lodi Musical Theatre performed at Hutchins Street Square. Two years ago, the fees to rent the venue caused them to start looking for a more affordable alternative.
They found one at San Joaquin Delta College, which welcomed the troupe with open arms — and a much more reasonable price tag on use of the Tillie Lewis Theater.
“It’s pretty much the most perfect theatre venue I’ve ever been in,” Howton said.
The 400-seat theater has a roomy stage with large wings and state-of-the-art technology that makes set changes a breeze.
“There’s not a bad seat in the house. The seating is stadium,” Howton said.
All of the lighting and sound systems are also cutting edge.
“This will be the first show where we’re able to fly in backdrops,” she said.
The timing is fantastic, too, she added. Since classes haven’t started yet at Delta, Lodi Musical Theatre doesn’t have to compete with Delta Drama for performance space.
And the partnership with Delta is already bearing fruit.
Opening day will coincide with a field trip for high school students to visit the community college, so the “Mamma Mia!” cast will give a sneak peek full performance for the teens. The college plans to take advantage with booths and faculty on-hand, representing several of the school’s programs, including performing arts.
Howton hopes more drama and dance students at the college will audition for future productions.
Along with a new performance space, LMT has a new rehearsal space as well: American Legion Hall in Lodi.
Like with the performance venue, the rehearsal space move came after the troupe’s previous digs priced them out, but it’s turned out for the better.
“It’s awesome. These sweet, dear veterans whom I have fallen in love with — and I think they have with us as well — they have opened their doors to us,” Howton said.
LMT rehearses in the Cross Room, which is a huge space, and there’s a storage room upstairs where they can easily store costumes, set pieces, props and other items.
Like with Delta, the move has brought a true partnership with Lodi’s Legionnaires. This past June, Lodi Musical Theatre provided the entertainment for a country-western barbecue fundraiser. Troupe members sang songs by Patsy Cline, Carrie Underwood and others, Legion members cooked the food, local businesses donated dozens of pies, and about 500 people paid for dinner tickets. The proceeds went toward the building’s new roof.
“It was about 90 minutes of incredible entertainment while everybody chowed down on ribs and chicken and pie,” Howton said. “It was just amazing. We probably had a hundred pies — every kind of pie you could possibly imagine.”
She couldn’t believe the amount of support Lodi had for the Legion.
Last fall, LMT held its own Halloween fundraiser in Legion Hall. This year, it’s planning a Christmas show instead, as a combined fundraiser with Post 22. She’s imagining transforming the hall into a winter wonderland, with dinner, a show and waltz lessons.
“It’s been a wonderful win-win situation for both the veterans of Post 22 and Lodi Musical Theatre,” Howton said.
Finding a family in the local performing arts scene
Maybe it’s meant to be, then, that Lodi Musical Theatre’s first production since moving to its two new homes is “Mamma Mia!”
The musical celebrates the music of Swedish pop superstars ABBA, but the story is all about family.
Set on a Greek island in 1998, the show tells the story of single mother Donna Sheridan and her daughter Sophie. Donna has managed a taverna on the island for 20 years, and Sophie has grown up there.
As Sophie prepares to marry her fiance Sky, she finds her mother’s diary, which names three potential fathers. Wanting her father at her wedding — but not knowing which of the three men he is — Sophie has secretly invited them all to attend.
Howton loves the show for its important and always relevant message: “A family is a family. A family is not defined by one description. It comes in all shapes and sizes, and a family is about love and supporting each other, and that’s it,” she said.
But “Mamma Mia!” wasn’t the play LMT had originally chosen for its re-emergence into the local theatrical scene.
They’d planned on “Damn Yankees,” but found out as they prepared for their summer show that Community Theatre of Linden had also gotten the rights for that show.
After talking with CTL’s director, Howton decided to change course.
“We realized that Linden was actually more emotionally and financially invested in ‘Damn Yankees’ already,” she said. “I know, had the situation been the other way, they would have done the same for us.”
As LMT shifted gears and prepared for “Mamma Mia!” instead, other local theatrical companies showed just how true that could be.
Along with the Lodi businesses and wineries that Lodi Musical Theatre is so grateful to, Stockton businesses have offered the troupe financial backing for the production.
Just as important, with their shortened timeline, is the help Lodi Musical Theatre received from other local theatrical companies. That’s Showbiz Theatre Company has loaned them costumes, and KUDOS Children’s Theatre Company is loaning them set pieces. This isn’t new — LMT has borrowed set pieces from Stockton Civic Theatre in the past.
“You would think that there would be competition between these theatrical companies, but there actually isn’t,” Howton said. “It is just one big supportive group of musical theatre lovers.”
Like a family.
The comparison becomes more obvious when you realize that, in most cases, the same actors perform in multiple companies.
Howton estimates that as many as three quarters of the local acting community performs for more than one troupe. Some go straight from one show to whichever production is next; others carefully pick and choose, only auditioning for their favorite plays.
When children want to audition for a play but Lodi Musical Theatre doesn’t have enough roles for youngsters, Howton sends them to KUDOS. When teens age out of KUDOS’ productions, Rob and Ria Kroff direct them to the other local companies.
The directors all work together so that if there’s overlap, performances for a current production come before rehearsals for an upcoming show.
“All of the theatre companies in our area give such fantastic experiences,” Howton said.
Here they go again
“I relate a lot to the character Donna,” Howton said.
In “Mamma Mia!” it becomes clear that Donna made some mistakes in her early 20s. But, like most people, Donna has learned from those mistakes and grown, especially in her role as a mother to Sophie.
Like Donna, Howton sees motherhood as one of her most important roles. She shares another trait with Donna — she has two best friends who are often more likely chosen family.
“It was very fun to stage this, because any time I wondered what Donna would do, I would just think about what I would do in that situation,” Howton said.
Donna isn’t the only relatable role in “Mamma Mia!” Audience members may instead see themselves in Sophie, a young woman who is trying to figure out her own role in life, and who is ready to spread her wings. Or in Sam Carmichael, Bill Austin or Harry Bright, who have all suddenly found out that they may have a daughter. Or in Sky, Sophie’s fiance, who is trying to figure out the best way to support the love of his life as they move forward, together, to the next stage in life.
That relatability has helped the cast truly embody their characters as well.
“Almost every single person in the cast have seen the movie several times,” Howton said. A few have even managed to catch it on stage, as she has herself. “They just understood where these characters are coming from.”
Howton hopes that Lodi theatre lovers will turn out to see “Mamma Mia!” even if it means an extra 10 minutes in the car.
“The community of Lodi is so supportive to Lodi Musical Theatre and always has been,” she said.
And the show itself is spectacular, she added. In fact, Howton — who has seen “Mamma Mia!” on Broadway — thinks Lodi Musical Theatre’s version is better. She told the cast that herself during a recent rehearsal.
The audience will love “Voulez Vous,” with its incredible, acrobatic dance number, and the finale. She dares any parents in the audience not to tear up a little during “Slipping Through My Fingers,” when Donna sings about her daughter growing up.
“It’s just unbelievably moving,” she said.
And people will go crazy for the finale, as the cast encourages the audience to dance along to some of ABBA’s catchiest tunes.
Lodi Musical Theatre is incredibly grateful for the support they’ve received, Howton said, from American Legion Post 22, San Joaquin Delta College, Lodi businesses and wineries, and Stockton businesses.
“We could not have staged this show without them. We began this production with zero funding,” she said. After their production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” LMT was not only at square one on funding, they’d also lost their rehearsal and performance spaces.
“The community of Lodi just rose to our aid, so we feel very humbled. We feel the weight of this privilege. We don’t want to let our community down,” she said.