By Susan T. Hessel  

Look at the season opener for the La Crosse Community Theatre this way: “Mamma Mia!” is a “jukebox musical” that will have you tapping your feet to familiar fun-loving songs without plugging quarters into a jukebox (assuming one of those machines from yesteryear could be found).

“It’s a delightful show—it is so much fun. Anyone who knows and loves the music of ABBA will have a wonderful time revisiting it in an exciting new way, and those who don’t know their music are soon to be fans,” said Stephanie Harter Campbell, the musical’s director. 

A jukebox musical focuses on popular songs—in this case from the Swedish pop band ABBA, which sold millions and millions of albums beginning in the 1970s. The “Mamma Mia!” story was written around the songs “without changing a single lyric,” Campbell said.

It’s different from a jukebox musical like “Jersey Boys,” which tells the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons first, and then uses the band’s songs.

How popular is “Mamma Mia!” likely to be? “We were blown away by the turnout at auditions. Ninety talented people came out for 30 roles. The competition was very, very stiff,” the director said.  

The story explores the mother-daughter relationship of Donna and Sophie, who are on a Greek island for Sophie’s wedding. The daughter invited three men to the wedding with the hope of finding out which one is her father.

Maria Higgins, who plays the mother, said, “The music is so much fun. We have all heard these songs. We know these songs. The music is why I auditioned for this show.”

Higgins even hopes the audience will sing along. “I would love to hear people sing from the audience.” 

Zoe de Boer, who plays daughter Sophie, said, “Honestly, it has been one of my favorite musicals since I was really little. I fell in love with it. I identify with Sophie. We are both young and I feel like she has all these dreams that I can identify with.”

The movie’s focus was on the tension between Donna and Sophie, but de Boer said she is interested “in the loving side of the relationship.” The Onalaska native, a sophomore at Viterbo University in music education and dance, said she understands the conflict that Sophie has between wanting to explore the world and being close to her mother.

Rehearsals started days after the film sequel, “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again!” opened in La Crosse. It focuses on the timeframe five years after the wedding, and Sophie is still trying to determine who her father is. (Surely these men can be given DNA tests!) The sequel includes flashbacks to Donna’s college years and life after college. 

Campbell, a Missouri native and graduate of Missouri Southern State University and Wichita State University, teaches at Viterbo.
Prior to moving to La Crosse “for love,” she was an actor based in New York. 

Higgins, who is a part-time music director at French Creek Lutheran Church in Ettrick, graduated from Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, after studying at the University of Minnesota Duluth. She then spent six years as a member of the U.S. Navy’s Sea Chanters chorus based in Washington, D.C. That’s where she met her husband, who was a Marine. 

“I took a 15-year break to have five babies and just got back into theatre five years ago in ‘Les Misérables.’ It was like coming home again,” she said. “Community theatre is such a welcoming place. They welcome new people.”

She said she “can’t say enough” about theatre in the La Crosse area, including other venues. She finds “a passion for getting people together who love music and love theatre.”

“We need to remind each other of how important the arts are,” Higgins added. “It frees you to learn more about other people and different points of view.”

Bring your dancing shoes to “Mamma Mia!” “As a cast and crew, we want to have the most fun possible while doing our best work, but our central goal is for the audience to have a good time,” Campbell said. “That’s why we do what we do; it’s for the audience.”