BAR HARBOR — Oh, Mamma Mia! Are we in for some fun starting Nov.15 when 40 singers, dancers and actors from Mount Desert Island High School will be performing the popular “jukebox” musical “Mamma Mia” based on the songs of the Swedish pop group ABBA.
At a rehearsal last weekend, it was easy to see why this rather implausible story of a girl trying to find her dad amongst a trio of eager contenders, in time to walk her down the aisle, was one of the top 10 longest running shows in Broadway history — 14 years, long.
It’s the music, stupid!
Songs like “Dancing Queen,” “Waterloo,” Money, Money, Money” “Super Trouper” and other such ABBA hits are simply impossible not get one smiling, no matter what sort of dreadful day they’ve had up to that point.
Then again, perhaps it’s the direction. Frank Bachman, who recently played one of the possible dads in the Penobscot Theatre Company production of “Mamma Mia,” brings a wealth of experience as a working professional actor and longtime director to this MDIHS production.
Sometimes, as his shows head into “hell week,” the tension and fatigue from a couple of months and many, many of hours of rehearsals and juggling the students’ busy schedules is apparent. But today, as the kids run through their curtain call finale, he is grinning with delight.
“Yes, it’s still a little rough around edges, and there are still some lines and lyrics and dance moves to be memorized,” he said. “But I’ve worked with these kids enough now to know they will, come opening night, pull it all together. And with an audience to perform for the energy level, which always flags a bit around now, will skyrocket.”
Choreographer Tammy Willis makes no bones about her exhaustion, after snapping at the cast when they don’t seem to be paying enough attention as she gives them notes on a number they have just run through.
“Sorry guys, I am really, really tired, so please don’t make me have to say all this again,” she implores.
Still, when the taped rehearsal music is switched on, and they go through the number again, Willis belies her claim of fatigue by dancing right along with them, showing them the moves.
MDIHS graduate Annie Leonardi, a veteran of many memorable musical productions on the Higgins Demas stage, is the musical director for the show, and although she is not present at this rehearsal, which is more about the choreography, her strong influence is apparent, as the cast sings loudly and lustily and in tune with those distinctive ABBA harmonies, while they dance on the stage and even spill into the audience.
Both Bachman and Willis acknowledge that the big challenge of this show has been the sheer size of the cast.
“Choreographing 39 people to navigate gracefully about the stage without crashing into one another or having it look chaotic has been, well, complicated,” Willis says.
Marilee Marchese’s costumes are also an important element of these MDIHS productions. Hanging on racks are dozens of colorful outfits, the sort of casual duds one might wear when vacationing on a Greek isle in the 1970s, which is where and when the show is set. Of course, when one thinks of ABBA performances, sparkle comes to mind and, judging by some sequined and bejeweled outfits hanging here, Marchese promises there will be plenty of that.
Most of all, though, what is going to make this show a hit for its all too short, two weekend run, is its big, all-star cast — including Ashley Graves, Alexander Shepard, Colby Bennoch, Claire Sanner, Finn Hansbury and Zack Uliano, who all distinguished themselves in last year’s terrific “Addams Family” and/or ACTs “Freaky Friday.”
The high school’s excellent show choirs have also honed some of the performers in this show, most notably Molly Collins and Lily Crikelair who have stepped out of the chorus to prove they can sing as well as dance in leading roles. There are a couple dozen new names and faces filling the ranks of this cast as well. And with their singing, dancing and enthusiasm, they promise to continue the tradition of excellence on this stage for years to come.