At the height of the disco era, Studio 54 felt like Michael Disher’s second home.
The wailing horns, full-bodied strings and musical riffs swept up the New York transplant, filling him with the sounds of Earth, Wind & Fire, the Bee Gees, and Barry White & The Love Unlimited Orchestra.
But not ABBA.
“Disco was the happiest music of all time. It really defied you not to dance to it,” Disher said. “And that’s pretty much what ABBA does — except I’m not a huge fan of them, I never was. Admittedly, ABBA was on the pop edge of disco, not necessarily hardcore disco. Still, you hear it and the toes start tapping, the hips start swaying, the hands start moving and, suddenly, you have been ABBA-tized.”
Even though the Swedish disco-pop band found fame in the 1970s, their international base of loyal fans spans generations — as does the musical comprised almost entirely of their catalogue, “Mamma Mia!,” now staging at the Southampton Cultural Center.
And with less than 48 hours until opening night, the director had half-solved the crises that the circa-1999 hit production hurled his way, he said with a lighthearted laugh, despite never having seen it during its near 14-year run on Broadway.
“I think you have to look at it as a period piece,” Disher said. “‘Mamma Mia!,’ even though it is a theatrical piece, it’s definitely in that ‘chick’ genre. It has appeal to women. And that produces a great amount of vault-work on my part. How do I make this relevant? Because the story is so thin.”
Staged against a set of blue and white, “Mamma Mia!” unfolds in the Greek Isles, centered around a young American girl named Sophie — portrayed by Ava Bianchi — who dreams of her perfect wedding day and her father walking down the aisle.
There’s just one problem: She has no idea who he is.
Her mother, Donna — acted by Mary Sabo — is of zero help, forcing Sophie to take matters into her own hands. She invites three of Donna’s former lovers to the island for her wedding, convinced she will know her father when she sees him, and quickly realizes it won’t be as simple as she thought.
“I wanted the actors to be able to shine through the lines that they were given. Many of their choices are not necessarily dependant upon the text,” Disher said. “A great deal of what they are doing is just driven by character choices. The script is so marginal, so the actors have had to, in a great sense, rely upon themselves more than what the text has given them. And, of course, it is all about the music.”
The production opens with the ballad “‘I Have a Dream,” which leads into the bubblegum number, “Honey, Honey,” then “Money, Money, Money,” then “Thank You for the Music,” and finally, “Mamma Mia!”
And that’s just within the first 14 minutes, Disher said.
“The singers are terrific and they are being pushed to their limits — absolutely pushed to their limits,” he said. “During these shows, particularly the leads, they’re not given three numbers throughout the show. They’re getting 12 numbers to sing, and to dance, and to bring some sort of reality to these characters. It is a tall order.”
Working so closely with the songbook, Disher is still not the biggest ABBA fan, he admitted, but audiences certainly are. This Center Stage production had more advance ticket sales than any other, he noted, and at the very least, he can understand why.
“I’m always amazed that people can hook into a particular sound, a particular vibe, a particular tone and just become so freaking prolific in writing — not just one or two hits, not just three or four hits, but this is hit after hit after hit after hit,” Disher said of ABBA. “So you have to step back and go, ‘Alright. Alright. I may not do what you do, but you’re certainly very good at doing what you do.’ And they are. They are very good.
“And the tunes are there — and when some of them are stripped down to ballads, there are some absolutely gorgeous songs.”
“Mamma Mia!” will stage on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7 p.m., and Sundays at 2:30 p.m., through March 24, at the Southampton Cultural Center, located at 25 Pond Lane in Southampton.
The cast includes Mary Sabo, Ava Bianchi, Tom Rosante, Jack Seabury, Rich Gardini, Linda Aydinian, Marco Barrila, Julie Crowley, Alyssa Kelly, James Kelly, Katrina Lovett, Michele Marks, Tina Marie Realmuto, Amanda Kyle-Summers, Kristin Teuber, Josephine Wallace, Kristin Whiting and Sam Terry. Michael Disher directs, Amanda Jones musically directs and Alyssa Kelly choreographs.
Tickets are $30 and $15 for students $15. For more information, call (631) 287-4377 or visit scc-arts.org.