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'Little escape from the craziness': Sooner Theatre opens 'Mamma Mia' as 1st show since start of COVID-19 pandemic

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Sooner Theatre (copy)

Sooner Theatre, photographed here in 2017, will put on the musical "Mamma Mia" beginning Friday, Oct. 15.

Dr. Kelley Lobb is a practicing physician in the Norman and Oklahoma City areas — who also happens to have a huge passion for the arts.

At just 5 years old, Lobb discovered her love of the arts when she began dancing. She then picked up singing in her adolescent years, moving up to musical theater in high school and parts of college.

Lobb graduated from the OU College of Medicine and went on to medical school to become a physician, but said her passion for performing never went away.

“I was a really, really shy child. But the one thing that I loved was dancing. I loved being on stage,” Lobb said. “Singing is just something that came secondary to that ... and that turned out to be something I wound up being really passionate about.”

Every year, Lobb and other physicians produce a parody skit around Halloween, keeping in touch with their beloved hobby. The skit reached the eyes of Jennifer Baker, executive director of Sooner Theatre, who proposed Lobb become involved in the community theatre’s upcoming production of “Mamma Mia!”

Lobb was cast in the lead role and will star in the Sooner Theatre's opening show “Mamma Mia!” as Donna Sheridan, a musician-turned-hotel manager with her daughter, Sophie Sheridan.

This is not the first time Lobb has been a lead at the Sooner Theatre. In college, Lobb auditioned “on a whim” for the Sooner Follies and wound up with one of the leads in her debut at Sooner Theatre.

Having grown up in the performing arts, Lobb said she feels being in this world gives her balance.

“I’m an empathetic person, emotionally driven, and in more of a scientific community, you have to have boundaries to protect yourself,” Lobb said. “(Musical theatre) is a way to be able to express that and feel those emotions and keep yourself grounded, well balanced and in tune with what you’re thinking and feeling.”

Being executive director of Sooner Theatre for the past 19 years, Baker has a similar reason that drives her passion for the arts.

“We have several programs at the Sooner Theatre, one of them is arts education,” Baker wrote in an email. “The people and the youth involved in this organization ... it's the heartbeat of this place!”

Baker grew up in Norman but jetted off to New York for about ten years to work as a traveling actress and choreographer before coming back, according to the Sooner Theatre website. She then got involved in Sooner Theatre on the board of directors before taking on the executive director position.

Director Justin Larman is also an Oklahoma native. Raised in Choctaw, Larman now works as the assistant drama teacher at Choctaw High School, where he graduated, alongside his former teacher Mary Jane Burton.

Larman previously directed the Sooner Theatre’s production of "Elf" and is now back as the director of “Mamma Mia!” Larman said choosing this production as the first show back from COVID-19 was no accident.

“The show’s just all about celebrating life and Sophie,” Larman said. “The young girl in the show really goes through a transformation about finding herself and I think during quarantine, we all had to sit with ourselves and be like, ‘Alright, let’s do what makes me happy during this time.’”

That’s exactly what the Sooner Theatre is for — bringing the community joy. Larman said that’s exactly why he loves the theatre.

“What I like about community theatre is that it really pulls people from all over,” Larman said. “We’ve got people all over coming to create this beautiful story. I just like creating theatre and stories. The big thing we’re talking about now is just how much the world needs this show right now.” 

Lobb agrees that this production is something the community needs and has helped her find a sense of normalcy again.

“To come out of a pandemic, where things are very negative, bleak and sad, and to be a part of a group that’s very loving and supporting has been almost healing in a way,” Lobb said. “Both for me personally and for the community in general, to have something they can go and enjoy and watch is very important.”

While the theatre is reopening, COVID-19 is still a concern for some and Sooner Theatre is taking precautions to protect the audience, cast and crew.

“We’re all really passionate about doing this show, so everyone is taking those extra precautions to make sure that we’re all safe,” Larman said.

The cast of “Mamma Mia!” is almost entirely vaccinated but will continue to wear masks during rehearsal and as well as in the performance. The audience will be asked to wear masks at the theater as well.

With her physician’s perspective, Lobb said she is not worried about acting in front of people again.

“I literally interact with patients who’ve had COVID-19, have COVID-19 or (have) been touched by someone who has COVID-19 on a daily basis,” Lobb said. “I’ve had a front row seat to this (pandemic) for two years. I fully support people getting out and interacting and living life again, I’m obviously a proponent of getting vaccinated. If you’re going to come to a show like this and do these things, do the necessary things to make sure you’re protecting yourself and those around you.” 

Opening night of “Mamma Mia!” will be Oct. 15 at the Sooner Theatre. The production will run Oct. 15-17 and Oct. 22-24. Showtimes and tickets can be found on the Sooner Theatre’s website.

Larman encourages people to come enjoy the music, the show and the story behind “Mamma Mia!”

“Live theatre, it's kind of a little escape from the craziness that’s happening,” Larman said. “We’re really excited to come back to the theatres, to reopen, and for it to be an awesome show.”

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