When Duluth's historic NorShor Theatre debuted in restored form in 2018, the musical "Mamma Mia!" welcomed audiences back. So it only made sense when, more than a year after the COVID-19 pandemic darkened the stage, the music of ABBA revives it.

"They are songs everyone knows and loves," said Phillip Fazio, producing artistic director for the Duluth Playhouse, the city's largest theater company and the show's producer. "Everyone is getting a joyous return to in-person theater."

"Dancing queens: The music of ABBA's Mamma Mia," runs through Sunday. A scaled-down production with the three leads (all from the 2018 show) spaced apart onstage was the best way to safely re-enter the world of live performances, Fazio said. The short four-night run is a way to gauge how eager audiences are to gather.

"We weren't quite sure where everyone was going to be, as far as comfort level," said Fazio, who was hired at the start of the pandemic. Only a few tickets remain for this weekend.

The Playhouse is building up to its 2021-22 season opener, Monty Python's "Spamalot," in stages: next comes a two-weekend run of a "Hair" musical event, followed by a three-weekend run of "Xanadu." Audiences will be limited to 25% capacity, or about 150 guests, to account for spacing restrictions. By the time "Spamalot" opens in the fall, the theater hopes for a full house. (The production was set for spring 2020, and its set and costumes are ready to go.)

Amber Burns, family theater and education artistic director for the Playhouse, choreographed this weekend's production. Families were willing to send their kids to summer theater camps last year, she said, and a sold-out winter family theater "Charlotte's Web" production acted as a test run for live audiences.

"That gave us confidence to do something on the NorShor stage and get that audience back," Burns said.

Without the theater's patrons, donors and the grant-writing skills of Playhouse executive director Christine Gradl-Seitz, "we would not have survived," Fazio said.

"So many theater companies have closed their doors for good," he said of pandemic struggles. "I was terrified of a similar fate."

Show plans were made and canceled, time and again, as COVID-19 cases surged in the Northland. Spring and summer mini-shows are expected to buoy the Playhouse until its fall season begins. Employees who were furloughed last spring are working again and "fingers are crossed" for a safe, full return in the fall, Fazio said.

Being back on stage has been "magical" for the cast and crew, Burns said.

"Telling a story and sharing this life experience that's not on a screen with people around you is such a different atmosphere," she said. "This is what we do. We dance and sing."

Jana Hollingsworth • 218-508-2450