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2018 Fall Theater Preview: Great Lakes Theater’s ‘Mamma Mia!’ and ‘Pride and Prejudice’ stars having time of their lives

September 23, 2018

2018 Fall Theater Preview: Great Lakes Theater’s ‘Mamma Mia!’ and ‘Pride and Prejudice’ stars having time of their lives

CLEVELAND, Ohio – When Great Lakes Theater actors Jillian Kates and Laura Welsh Berg learned what producing artistic director Charles Fee had planned for the 2018 fall repertory, they were, to put it mildly, surprised.

The company would perform Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” one day, and the ABBA-inspired musical “Mamma Mia!” the other.

At first blush, the combination was hard to fathom. What could Austen’s meditation on love and marriage, played out within the suffocating confines of the British class system, and the musical bacchanal that unfolds on a tiny Greek Isle to the strains of Swedish pop, possibly have in common?

“It’s like pairing Cheetos with Merlot – you just don’t do that,” says Kates. “You need to go get a nice brie . . .”

But Kates, who plays Donna Sheridan, the free-spirited proprietress of a taverna on an idyllic Mediterranean island in “Mamma Mia,” and Jane, the eldest and most reserved of the Bennet sisters in “Pride and Prejudice,” is now a convert.

“It’s wild to put these two side-by-side,” says Kates, “but it’s been surprisingly rewarding and educational to view these stories, back-to-back, night-after-night.”

“And fun!” adds Berg, who headlines as the indomitable Elizabeth “Lizzie” Bennet. In the drama of corsets and conventions she famously melts the icy heart of one Mr. Darcy (Nick Steen). Berg also shimmies into the velvet-boa-sequined extravaganza that is “Mamma Mia!” as Rosie, cookbook writer, adventurer and one of Donna’s lifelong pals in the musical.

Both women have had time to grow into their multiple roles – and learn to truly appreciate the weirdly inspired juxtaposition – in Boise Idaho, where the productions were launched at the Idaho Shakespeare Festival this summer.

In fact, Kates and Berg have come to see the seemingly disparate works as harmonious rather than dissonant.

They agreed to discuss the divine madness of going from Austen to ABBA, and back again, in late August, before heading into a Boise recording studio to lay down some “Mamma Mia!” vocals.

Later, they’ll decamp to Cleveland to open the shows, beginning with “Mamma Mia,” Saturday, September 29.

One of the craziest things about this season for me has been dealing with what I feel are kind of like the bookends of love,” says Berg.

In “Pride and Prejudice,” set in The Georgian Era, Lizzie and her sisters are navigating new love. “They’re discovering how to be attracted to someone and how to communicate with that person and all of the baggage that comes from trying to create a relationship with someone,” Berg continues.

The trio of grown women at the heart of “Mamma Mia!” (that’s Donna, Rosie and Jodi Dominick as Tanya) are old hands at the mating game. “They’ve gone through first, second, third and fourth loves,” says Berg. They have plenty of love in their lives but not only the sexual or romantic kind.

Donna has the love of her girlfriends, who offer her laughter and support, and that of her daughter. As they musical begins, Donna’s baby is about to get married and wants to invite her Daddy to the wedding, if only Donna knew which of her exes that was. . .

The point is, it’s the 1990s (in “Mamma Mia!” time) and Donna and her posse don’t need to make a prudent match in order to survive, as the Bennet girls do. They can pay their own bills.

“It took us a couple hundred years to figure that one out,” quips Kates.

Berg sees the two productions as tracing the journey of feminism. “Pride and Prejudice” is dealing with a society that views marriage as a business transaction and Lizzie says, ‘No, but I want more than that.’ Darcy wants more than that, too which is why he proposes to Lizzie [a woman beneath his social station.]”

“The flip side of it,” continues Berg, “is looking at these women in ‘Mamma Mia’ who don’t need to have a man to be complete – but they still want love.”

The personal and political implications of the works aside, both actresses relish the opportunity to headline beloved classics in a classical theater company.

“This is classical theater, right? It tends to feature male-centric stories,” says Berg. “And it is so flippin’ exciting to be able to do a repertory that actually explores women’s experiences of their own relationships.”

Audiences have responded with similar excitement – particularly to “Mamma Mia,” where ticketholders have shown up in ABBA-inspired costumes and shouted out their favorite lyrics when they find Kates doesn’t deliver them fast enough for their liking.

Amazingly, there have been a few shout outs in “Pride and Prejudice,” too.

Do Kates and Berg ever imagine their characters transported into the other show? In other words, the Bennet clan in spandex and feather boas and Donna and company squeezed into empire-waist gowns and impossible corsets?

“I haven’t but I will now!” says Berg. “Oh that’s fun!”

“Donna would be a lot like Lizzie in that time period,” says Kates. “I think they’d get along really well.”

And if Lizzie time traveled to Donna’s Greek island?

“Lizzie would take Darcy to the beach,” Berg says.

Times, tickets and more

All performances will be in the Hanna Theatre, Playhouse Square, Cleveland, except “A Christmas Carol,” which will be in the Ohio Theatre. The two fall plays will be produced in rotating repertory; the winter and spring shows will be presented as separate “stock” productions, one after the other.

Except where noted, shows preview at 7:30 p.m. on the Friday before opening, premiere at 7:30 p.m. on the first Saturday and continue at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 1:30 p.m. select Wednesdays, 1:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays, and 3 p.m. Sundays.

Flexible three-, four-, five- and six-show adult season-ticket packages range from $186-$384. Balcony box and banquette subscriptions (four seats for each show) are $888-$1,584. Student subscriptions are priced at $39-$78. Subscriptions are available for purchase now at greatlakestheater.org or 216-640-8869.

Single-performance tickets range in price from $15 to $89 (students sit in any seat at any performance for $13) are available on the website or by calling 216-241-6000.

The following listings and descriptions are based on information provided by the theater and the critic’s own notebook.

Fall repertory

Saturday, Sept. 29-Sunday, Nov. 11, Hanna Theatre: “Mamma Mia!” Music and lyrics by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus. Some songs with Stig Anderson. Book by Catherine Johnson. Originally conceived by Judy Cramer. Directed by Victoria Bussert.

On the eve of her wedding on an idyllic Greek island, a bride-to-be invites three men to her nuptials to determine which of them communed with her free-spirited mother to father her 20 years before.

The world’s most popular jukebox musical played on Broadway for 14 years and embarked on endless tours, bringing its irresistible hit tunes (“Dancing Queen,” “S.O.S,” “Take a Chance on Me”) and fabulous sequined self to Playhouse Square at least six times by our count. But a locally produced version? That’s something new, with the potential to enliven the well-traveled warhorse. (Previews at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 28.)

Saturday, Oct. 6-Sunday, Nov. 4, Hanna: “Pride and Prejudice.” Based on the novel by Jane Austen. Adapted by Joseph Hanreddy and J.R. Sullivan. Directed by Hanreddy.

While everyone around her is pressuring her to marry, the outspoken Elizabeth Bennet isn’t interested - until she meets the handsome, enigmatic Mr. Darcy. Their undeniable attraction is complicated, as most relationships worth having are. She thinks he’s a stuck-up bore; he sees her as well below his station. Will their stubborn pride and prejudice kill the fledgling romance before it blossoms?

Producing artistic director Charles Fee looked at other adaptations – including Kate Hamill’s pared-down, screwball retelling with a handful of actors playing multiple roles – but settled on Hanreddy’s more faithful interpretation. (Previews at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 5.)

Holiday show

Friday, Nov. 30-Sunday, Dec. 23, Ohio Theatre: “A Christmas Carol.” Written by Charles Dickens. Adapted and directed by Gerald Freedman. Staged by Victoria Bussert.

Charles Dickens’ tale of one man’s ultimate redemption continues its headlining role as one of Northeast Ohio’s most enduring holiday traditions. Now in its 30th season, the Great Lakes favorite has been seen by more than 750,000 adults and students throughout the region since its debut in 1989.

Single-performance tickets range from $28 to $75, and students sit in any seat at any show for $26. (There is no preview performance for this production.)

Spring season

Saturday, Feb. 16-Sunday, March 10, 2019, Hanna: “Witness for the Prosecution.” By Agatha Christie. Directed by Charles Fee.

The dashing young Leonard Vole is on trial for murdering rich widow Emily French for her money. Can he convince the jury of his innocence and escape the hangman’s noose?

Christie’s adaptation of her popular short story premiered in London in 1953, and the whodunit has been keeping audiences guessing ever since. The playwright described the opening as “the only first night I have enjoyed,” adding, “it is one of my plays that I like best myself.” (Previews at 7:30 Friday, Feb. 15.)

Saturday, March 30-Sunday, April 14, 2019, Hanna: “The Taming of the Shrew.” By William Shakespeare. Directed by Sara Bruner.

The only thing that stands between Bianca and her wedding day is her quick-tempered big sister Katherina, who must say “I do” before Bianca can marry. Fortune-hunting Petruchio takes up the challenge to “tame” Kate and make her his wife. So begins the Bard’s epic battle of the sexes. Will the skirmish end in harmony or heartache?

The play’s infamous ending is especially tricky and maintains the patriarchal order of things – an outcome that wouldn’t have ruffled Elizabethan feathers but is especially provocative in light of today’s revolutionary #MeToo environment. (Previews at 7:30 Friday, March 29.)

Saturday, May 4-Sunday, May 19, 2019, Hanna: “Million Dollar Quartet.” Book by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux. Directed by Hunter Foster.

On Dec. 4, 1956, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley found themselves together in a Memphis recording studio.

The jukebox musical takes audiences back in time to eavesdrop on the historic jam session with a score that includes “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Walk the Line,” “Great Balls of Fire” and more. (Previews at 7:30 p.m. Friday, May 3.)

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