Everybody loves ABBA — and that includes every race, gender, religion and every kind of person under the sun. That said, it’s no wonder that Mamma Mia!, a Broadway show that turned into Universal movie musical and a sequel that garnered box office success and acclaim among the masses. As the nation’s longest-running professional theater of color producing Asian American artistic work., the Los Angeles-based theater group East West Players (EWP) saw an opportunity to not only put on a production of the popular jukebox musical for their 53rd anniversary season but to switch things up with a majority Asian cast.
In a time when Hollywood sees a craving and demand for inclusive casting, East West Players answered the call to action by doing something that many would be considered bold: cast a musical that traditionally stars white actors with non-white actors. In other words, East West Players Hamilton‘d Mamma Mia!
EWP’s season reflects on the theme of “culture shock” and Producing Artistic Director Snehal Desai said he was excited to bring this production to the stage adding that the Asian American-led cast challenges the perception of who is perceived as an American abroad and “exploring the culture shock we often feel in our own families generationally.”
For those who haven’t seen the celebratory musical event that sculpts the iconic, disco-infused music and lyrics from ABBA’s Benny Andersson & Björn Ulvaeus into a narrative, Mamma Mia! follows a woman named Sophie (played with the crystalline-voiced Grace Yoo) who, on the day before her wedding, is on a quest to discover the identity of her real father. In order to do that, she invites three men from her mother’s past back to the Greek island they last visited 20 years ago. Her mom, Donna (played with phenomenal diva heft by Joan Almedilla) has since put them out of her mind as she runs her fabulous villa and lives her best life in Greece. When her daughter comes back with her friends, husband-to-be and a trio of maybe-fathers, her world is thrown for a loop and the best way to cope with all those feelings is to randomly break out into ABBA songs, obviously.
Directed by Desai and based on the book by Catherine Johnson, EWP’s production of Mamma Mia! debuted right in time for Asian Pacifica American Month and is an inclusive story in its own way in that it tells the story of two female leads — but it is often told with a majority white cast. With EWP’s production, it doesn’t take anything away from musical or its message but adds to it by broadening its horizons. With its Asian-led cast, it allows new and existing audiences to see themselves in this story of the intergenerational family relationships and happily-ever-after love set to the tune of ABBA jams.
As Desai points out, creating space for marginalized voices in entertainment can be an arduous task that makes us feel heavy and forlorn. Mamma Mia! tells the story of a foreigner in another country, the loneliness that comes with that and the customs and traditions that we bring with us. With its inclusive casting, EWP showcases this by spotlighting Asian culture — specifically Filipino culture. With the mother and daughter being of Filipino heritage in this iteration musical, there are shades of the culture in the production including mannerisms, language, the folk dance the “tinikling” as well as fashion seen in the during the wedding scene with the traditional Barong Tagalog as well as a disco-fied Maria Clara gown during the show’s encore. All add cultural nuance in a story that is ultimately universal, moving the needle of representation and proving that it’s not necessarily about colorblind casting but more about inclusive casting. EWP’s Mamma Mia! challenges the status quo and proves that widening the field to include marginalized communities in roles in plays, films, and television typically played by white actors will not take away anything from the source material, but add depth and culture.
The production of Mamma Mia! is supported by S. Mark Taper Foundation Endowment for East West Players and features musical direction by Marc Macalintal, and choreography by Preston Mui. The musical has extended its run at the David Henry Hwang Theater in downtown Los Angeles through June 16.