How to Find Your Inner Donna Sheridan on the Mamma Mia! Island

Special Features   How to Find Your Inner Donna Sheridan on the Mamma Mia! Island
 
Playbill editor Ryan McPhee ventured to the Greek island Skopelos—a.k.a. the real-life Kalokairi—on a quest to unleash his Dynamo spirit.
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Lily James, Ryan McPhee, and Meryl Streep Universal Pictures/Jeana Shandraw

To celebrate both the tenth anniversary of the film adaptation of Mamma Mia! and the home release of its sequel/prequel Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, Universal Pictures invited a select group of journalists to spend a week on the real-life island of Skopelos, which served as the site for the fictional island Kalokairi in the first film. With young Donna Sheridan’s immortal words “Life is short; the world is wide—I want to make some memories,” echoing in his ears, Playbill’s Ryan McPhee set out to dance, jive, and have the time of his life with cast members and fellow ABBA enthusiasts.

Here is his story.

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Adrina Beach Hotel Ryan McPhee

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again was an undeniable bright spot in a bleak summer, from Jessica Keenan Wynn in a Baranski bob to the pure distillation of bliss that is the Cher-led “Super Trouper” finale sequence. I was determined to carry that ABBA-induced joy into September while on my island escape. I was determined to live my Meryl Streep/Lily James fantasy.

According to Young Donna, ancient legend had it that Kalokairi was on the edge of the world, and if you sailed on from there, you’d fall off. While I’m not ready to give up on my conviction that Earth is, in fact, round, I will admit that traveling to Skopelos felt just as adventurous and involved as a journey to the edge of the world. Three trains to Newark (thanks, MTA), a plane to Athens, a plane to the island Skiathos, a quick van ride to the harbor, and a 40-minute, moonlit water taxi on the Aegean Sea to our final destination.

Maybe it was the excitement, or perhaps it was the jet lag, but on my first day, I woke up way earlier than usual. Opening the curtains in my room at the Adrina Beach Hotel, I could better take in my surroundings, dominated by those shades distinct to the Aegean: teal all around with spots of a deeper, richer blue splashed by a sun just beginning to rise.

I could have taken in the view for hours either on the beach or from the comfort of my room and balcony, but if I were to truly embrace my inner Donna, I could not sit still. I was in Skopelos; I had a dream and a song to sing, dammit. I asked the front desk staff if they had suggestions for a casual hike.

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A very accurate depiction of Ryan on his hike Courtesy of Universal Pictures

With a map of the island in hand, I started traveling south along the main, winding road toward Panormos, a nearby beach. After passing a series of villas, cafés, and Greek signs I could not read, I realized I was actually slowly trekking up a mountain. Fueled by visions of cartwheeling through an orange grove while singing “The Name of the Game,” I kept onward until I reached an unmarked trail along the side of the highway.

That probably should have been my cue to head back; I don’t want my obituary headline to contain the phrase “Failed Attempt to Emulate Lily James.” Instead, I ran up the steep passageway; the further I got, the less worn and distinct the path became, until I reached a clearing offering a panoramic view that was breathtaking in both its majesty and the effort required to reach it.

Skopelos is regarded as one of the greenest islands in the Aegean, abundant with pine forests, olive groves, and plum orchards. In the nearby patches of green I could see some citrus trees. As much as I wanted to further my transformation into Young Donna and pick oranges for fresh-squeezed juice like a lithe, beach-blonde Ina Garten, I already felt too spoiled by my unspoiled surroundings. Besides, my memory of turns I had taken was reaching its limit.

As I made my way back to my hotel, I realized that the trails I was on were likely old donkey paths, which are scattered around the island. Also scattered around the island? Goats. So much so that Skopelos has its own, rare breed that is responsible for a local cheese: katiki (more on that later). The Skopelos goats are domesticated, so the chances of me encountering one just as our young heroine did were slim. Nevertheless, my impromptu, Donna-inspired journey invigorated my sense of adventure, and I was eager to see what adventures awaited this global group of journalists, travel bloggers, and influencers.

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The view from the top of the trail Ryan McPhee

As it turns out, the hike was just the beginning of my physically strenuous transformation into Donna Sheridan. After just a few days on the island, all those Kalokairi beach bods made a lot more sense. Granted, it’s a lot easier to do cardio when you have a view, such as a cliff-side chapel or remote beach.

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The Ekklisia Agios Ioannis Chapel—and the view from the top Ryan McPhee

On our final morning, the group visited the Ekklisia Agios Ioannis Chapel, the picturesque church that served as the site of Sophie and Sky’s wedding ceremony. As the church is perched on a high rock, reaching it involves a bit of a climb—about 200 steps that increase in steepness. The view from the top, however, was certainly worth it.

But as we know from repeated viewings of Mamma Mia!, Donna doesn’t just walk up those steps. No, she fiercely runs up them while pouring out an emotional rendition of “The Winner Takes It All.”

While I love Meryl Streep’s overalls-laden performance as Donna Sheridan, I did miss some of the high-octane belting seen from the likes of Carolee Carmello and Beth Leavel on Broadway. On stage, “The Winner Takes It All” ends on a powerful button with fierce vibrato, which is reduced to a soft, pained whisper on screen. But having now rushed up those chapel steps, I can attest: the last thing you want to do once you reach the top is go above the staff in chest voice.

Side note: The chapel on the rock was not used for the interior shots in the film; it’s tiny in comparison to the studio set. While the history of the actual chapel is murky, local lore says it was built to house an icon of Saint John that was found at the top of the rock.

Run, Donna, run!
Run, Donna, run! Jeana Shandraw/Universal Pictures

Once we made it back down to sea level, we took a boat to Kastani Beach for…more cardio. This time, we had guidance from someone who knew all about living like a Kalokairian: Lucy Bardrick, assistant choreographer on Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again.

Bardrick was on hand to teach us the choreography for “Dancing Queen.” I had to break it to her that I was really more of a “Moving Queen.” She assured us that we were in good hands: “If I can teach Pierce, Colin, and Stellan [and roughly 100 extras] to do this, then so can you.”

She was right. Within the hour, we were raising our outstretched arms, step-touching, and flashing that iconic three-tiered piano roll. I didn’t have the sequins or spandex, but I certainly felt like a Dynamo. And bonus: Breaking into the official “Dancing Queen” choreography will henceforth be my go-to party trick. Check out my moves:

I may have found my inner Donna on Skopelos, but make no mistake: I am, at heart, a beautiful Rosie/Tanya hybrid. When Rosie said, “My soulmate may actually be carbs”? I felt that. When Tanya replied, “Then mine must be wine”? I. FELT. THAT. As much as I love the theatre, I am by no means a performer. In truth, I’m much more confident in my performance in a kitchen than on a stage.

The island’s rich vegetation carried over on the plates I tried. Stone fruit—especially plums and peaches—were a breakfast staple atop Greek yogurt. Prunes, an island specialty, were stewed with veal and vegetables. Oranges played a key role in the most decadent dessert I had during my trip: Portokalopita: a cake/pie hybrid of phyllo dough doused in a spiced honey syrup with slices of orange that candied and slightly caramelized into the base.

Two more unforgettable island staples: cheese and honey. The aforementioned katiki cheese had a distinct tang you’d expect from goat cheese, but with a surprising brightness. Its smooth texture made it perfect for a crostini or wrapped in phyllo, in the form of tyropita, a spiral cheese pie. Honey in Skopelos mirrors the lush landscape: floral and slightly piney. Sweet, of course, but its complexity prevented it from crossing into cloying. I now have multiple jars in my pantry, and I definitely haven't already reserved one for digging into with a lone spoon.

What struck me most about experiencing the island was how excited the people were to share it. From locals asking if I had tried the katiki yet to staffers at the Skopelos Village Hotel (the home base for the Mamma Mia! cast while filming) guiding us down a long table of dishes they had prepared for a dinner our final night with pride and enthusiasm, food was regarded not just as a necessity, but as a celebration. And Skopelos made it very easy to be in a celebratory mood.

Playbill's Broadway on the High Seas will take travelers on a their own odyssey through the Greek Isles in June 2019. For more information on upcoming cruises, featuring a lineup of top Broadway stars, visit PlaybillTravel.com.

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