Emily Matthew-Muller (Donna and Harry) and Kyle Girard (Harry) are two of the Brattleboro Union High School students who will perform in “Mamma Mia.”
Rebekah Kersten/Courtesy photo
Emily Matthew-Muller (Donna and Harry) and Kyle Girard (Harry) are two of the Brattleboro Union High School students who will perform in “Mamma Mia.”

Gonna do their very best

‘Mamma Mia!’ takes center stage at BUHS

Conflict between the generations is a given. The February production by the Brattleboro Union High School Players of the musical Mamma Mia! explores, through the songs of the pop group ABBA, the relationship between a single mother and her daughter. The show was a hugely popular 1999 stage hit and an acclaimed 2008 movie.

The daughter, Sophie, is about to be married at her mother's taverna on the fictional Greek island of Kalokairi. She really wants to have her father escort her down the aisle, only she doesn't know who he is. Her mother, Donna, isn't even sure who is her daughter's father.

Finding her mother's old diary, Sophie learns her father could be one of three men her mother knew in her hippie days. Secretly, Sophie invites each to her wedding.

Meanwhile, Donna is feeling emotional about her "little girl" growing up. She accidentally discovers the three former lovers hiding in her barn.

As might be expected, chaos ensues, all to the soundtrack of ABBA's music.

"I've loved this show for years," said Rebekah Kersten, BUHS English and theater teacher, who directs the show.

After last February's production of Fiddler on the Roof, "we were looking for something more lighthearted this year, and this seemed like a natural suggestion," Kersten said.

This jukebox musical, so-called because most of the songs included are previously well-known and popular outside of the context of the show, presents some challenges, she said.

"First, the temptation is to replicate the exact delivery of ABBA's recordings, the exact performances seen in the 2008 film, or a combination of both," Kersten said.

"Secondly, the challenge is to recognize that, in spite of this show's fluffy demeanor and jukebox subgenre, these characters do have emotional depth, and it's important to highlight that through their relationships and interactions with each other," she continued.

Bringing performances to the table

"Anytime we perform something with material as well-known as this, we encourage the students to do their own research - listen to the recordings, watch the film, and then use what they've learned to craft their own characters and performances," Kersten said. "We also spend some time very early on in the process engaging in what's called 'table work.'"

Table work, she explained, is the time in rehearsal when the actors, stage managers, and the director get together to look at the text of the script, the text of the songs, and talk about each of the characters, asking such questions as What is their history like with each other? How do you know? Why are they here in this moment now? What do they want, and what are they willing to do to get it?

"This analysis allows the actors to dive deep into their characters and to build relationships with each other, both on- and off-stage," Kersten said, "and the discoveries they make help them to solidify their characters for themselves, which, in turn, helps them to create their own unique performances, rather than a parody of or a tribute to someone else's."

Students reflect on their roles and acting

In recent interviews, some of the students involved in the production talked about their experience.

Sophie Hamm, a senior, has worked behind the scenes on costumes with Mary Linney, BUHS librarian.

"I've been sewing since I was in seventh grade," Hamm said. "I've always really liked fashion. When I was younger, I sewed with my grandmother. She gave me a sewing machine when I was in eighth grade. I like to go to thrift stores. I buy and alter the things I like. I've definitely learned from Ms. Linney, doing costumes for the musicals."

Kyle Girard, a senior, plays the part of Harry "Headbanger" Bright, one of the three possible fathers.

"He was a rock star in his youth," Girard said, "and became a lawyer for the Bank of England. He met Donna on the rebound, after Sam broke up with her. They met when Harry was an exchange student in Paris, and he followed her to Greece.

"Now he's a middle-aged man. In the years since, he's found out he's gay, and he has a husband, Nigel. Harry wants to prove that he's not a boring bank teller."

Girard, who started acting in freshman year, has inhabited a wide range of roles.

"I'm really enjoying diving into this new character," he said. "The hardest part is the accent, and the cultural references. But I'm growing into it."

Ori Johnson, a junior, plays the part of Sky, Sophie's fiancé.

"Sky used to work in stocks, but he decides he hasn't seen the world," Johnson said, "so he's traveling around the world, and he goes to the Greek island and meets Sophie. I like him. He's more mature than Sophie and a little bit of a father figure. He is constantly calming Sophie down."

Johnson's family moved to Vermont from Hawai'i when he was 4, almost 5. He started acting in the town/school theater program when he was 10, and he liked it so much that he wanted to do more.

"In acting you can go from being you to being a whole different person," he said. "You really feel the emotions of your character. It's a good escape."

Johnson has been friends for a long time with Lila Armour-Jones, who has the part of Sophie, "so our chemistry is good on stage," he said.

In earlier interviews, some of this production's actors talked about their interest in theater.

Armour-Jones (Sophie) started acting at the age of 10 in New England Youth Theatre's town/school program.

"I love getting to tell a story," she said. "I have the most fun on stage, when I get to leave it all behind and spend time as someone else."

There is that moment in the darkness of the wings, she said, and then you go on - and fear and doubt melt away in the most beautiful way.

"I'd love to be acting my whole life, if I can be," she said.

Leo Mousseau, a junior, plays Sam, another of the possible fathers.

"I like being in the mode of another person," he said. "You can be so scared in the wings, alone in the stillness, feeling the energy, and the second you walk out on stage, it all goes away. It's the greatest feeling to have a lot of people laugh - not in a bad way - at what you say."

John Mosher, a senior, has the part of Bill Austin, a Swedish sailor, a travel writer., and the third potential father of Sophie.

Mosher brings lots of experience to his character, having acted since middle school in Whitingham and having done summer plays in Wilmington.

Casting the kids

Casting a musical requires consideration of many factors, Kersten said.

"It always starts with understanding the demands of the show," she said, "and putting the appropriate performers into the appropriate roles in order to meet and surpass those demands. We also have to consider things such as vocal range, dance ability, and acting.

"We also have to consider which actors 'fit' with each other if they're playing leads together," she continued, "asking ourselves such questions as, Are they believable as a couple? Will that make sense to an audience? How do these actors play off of each other in this scene? Do they have the connection it takes to make it believable? Are their instincts for the character in line with the textual evidence?"

Some audience members might consider the subject matter of this musical a little mature, but Kersten said that as a high school teacher of literature, she frequently broaches mature topics in the classroom.

"I believe in discussing challenging topics in a matter-of-fact, down-to-earth sort of way," she said. "I tend not to have many concerns from a directorial point of view - theater is about life, after all, and life is theater.

"My biggest concern about any show that contains PG-13 content is to ensure the health and safety of my actors when they're performing - they have to be able to be comfortable with the content in order to portray it effectively."

As a result, Kersten said, "we talk about the script, we talk about what sorts of onstage actions feel in keeping with the demands of the character, while also respecting the needs of the actor."

"It has been such a joyful process to put this show together," she continued. "The cast and crew are so invested in the work, and everyone has been having a blast. I want the audience to have a thoroughly good time, but I also want them to be wowed at the emotional depth some of these characters have.

"That's not what we usually think of when we think about Mamma Mia!," Kersten said, "but it's definitely there."

Mamma Mia! at Brattleboro Union High School will take place on Thursday, Feb. 15 and Friday, Feb. 16 at 7 p.m., and Saturday, Feb. 17 at 2 p.m. in the BUHS Auditorium. Tickets for all performances are $15 for general admission and $10 for students/seniors, and all BUHS students get one free ticket. For more information, call 802-451-3511.

This Arts item was submitted to The Commons.

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