By R. J. Donovan
Special to The BIR
Boston theater audiences love Mary Callanan. Period. From her performances at SpeakEasy Stage, New Rep and Lyric to the hot night spots in Provincetown, she’s known for her razor-sharp way with a funny line as well as her ability to knock a musical number out of the park. Loyal followers haven’t seen a lot of the South Shore resident lately because she’s been on the road playing the role of Rosie in the national tour of “Mamma Mia!” All that changes this month when the tour works its way to the Opera House for a June 19-24 run.
Seen by more than 50 million people around the world, the phenomenally successful musical is about a single mother, a spirited daughter, and a wedding on a Greek island. The score includes such ABBA mega-hits as “The Winner Takes It All,” “Dancing Queen,” “Take A Chance On Me” and “Thank You For The Music.”
As Mary traveled between engagements in Kentucky, we spoke by phone about the tour and her upcoming Boston run. Here’s an edited look at our conversation:
BIR: “Mamma Mia!” is like the Eveready Bunny. From your perspective, what is it that makes the show such a phenomenon.
MC: That’s easy. It’s this music. It’s the music that you and I grew up with. It’s known all over the world . . . It’s also a family show. It’s about the strength of mothers and daughters and friendships . . . It’s sticking together and friends and girl power, whether it’s old girl power or young girls.
BIR: It crosses all borders.
MC: You look in the audience and see four generations There’s the grandmother, who would be my mother’s age. Then there’s me, and there’s my daughter, and then her daughter. And the husbands. They’re all there.
BIR: Rosie is the no-nonsense, comic relief in the show. That role is perfect for you.
MC: It is perfect for me. I always say, I think I’m the luckiest person in the world because I have the best lines, the best song, in the best position in the show. If you’re a comic, there’s really nothing more that you could really ask for. Except that I am blessed with [stage] partners who are equally dedicated to comedy.
BIR: Having played coast to coast, have you found that audiences embrace the show differently in different parts of the country?
MC: We’ve had surprising responses in different markets. Like in Los Angeles, [they were] tearing the seats out of the theater . . . You think, Los Angeles, they’re sophisticated. But when people get there, they’re ready to have a good time. It’s crazy. They put on the costumes . . . In LA there was a drag queen in Donna’s opening outfit in the front row. Full on!
BIR: Diehard fans of “Mamma Mia!” tend to be very committed.
MC: [At one performance], three teenage girls had their mothers help them sew the dynamo costumes that we wear at the end. They had on these full sequin versions of us. It’s very flattering. It’s amazing that someone loves this story so much that they’re going to go through that.
BIR: They way the story is told, the audience clearly bonds with the three female characters.
MC: Every woman who comes to the show says “They’re just like me. She’s just like my friend Suzy or my mother or my Aunt Helen” or whatever it is. Our characters are so easily identifiable. Which is a beautiful thing. Our characters are not far from the truth.
BIR: You and I have spoken in the past about how many times you’ve auditioned over the years to get into this show.
MC: I auditioned throughout six years. They kept calling me back in. (Laughing) I’m assuming they waited until my hair and my wrinkles and my age were the right combination.
BIR: The process had to be somewhat challenging.
MC: It was a little on the rigorous side, but it’s okay because it all worked out in the end . . . It was never that they didn’t want me. At one point I took one of those audition classes where you meet with an actual casting director and they give you choices of songs to sing, blah, blah, blah.
BIR: And one of those classes was with the casting director from “Mamma Mia!”
MC: He laughed when I was in the class because I know him. He’s seen me do my club act and we’ve know each other for a long time. And he said, in a mock whisper, “What are you doing here?” And I said, “Do you really want me to tell the whole class?” And he turned really red and said, “Actually, yes, you should tell the whole class.” And I said, “I’m here to ask you, what do I have to do to get this job?” And everybody started laughing. And he said, “It’s just a matter of time.” And I said, “So I’m going to stick with it if it kills me!”
BIR: You’ve used Facebook very effectively to stay in touch with people while you’ve been on the road. Social media has given the arts world a whole new promotional tool.
MC: It certainly helps me get in touch with my ever-expanding family all across the country . . . How it helps, quote, The Fan Base, is that people who have seen me in Provincetown are saying, “You’re in Kentucky! Oh my God, I’m in Kentucky.“ That kind of thing. Which is why every morning – except I forgot this morning, thank you for reminding me – I change my city when we move so people can either keep up or tell their family. “Mamma Mia!” is a juggernaut all by itself. But for me personally, Facebook certainly is widening my purview, so that for the next thing, I have all these new friends.
BIR: The inevitable question is, what’s it going to be like performing for the hometown crowd at the Opera House? When you walk out for your first entrance in this huge hit, the response is going to be incredible.
MC: I just hope I don’t completely sob, that’s all I’m counting on . . . When I was a little girl or a teenager, I was sitting in the [Colonial] Theatre, saying, “This is what I want to do. This is what I want to do.” You check off one big Bucket List childhood dream.
BIR: And the headline reads, Local Girl Makes Good.
MC: (Laughing) Yes, I’m an overnight success!
R. J. Donovan is publisher of OnStageBoston.com.
“Mamma Mia!” – June 19-24, Boston’s Opera House, 539 Washington Street. Tickets: 1-800-982-2787; BroadwayInBoston.com.