Curtains!: behind the scenes with the cast of “Mamma Mia!”

by Arianne Nguyen | April 6, 2020

During rehearsal, the leads of Mamma Mia! pose at the end of the closing number. Photo by Ms. Laura Rose, via Jack Whitlow (’21)

Every year, the Saint Francis drama program puts on a blowout acting, dancing, and musical extravaganza. “We work six months of rehearsal to put on an hour and a half show,” Patrick Gammon (’20) said of the spring musical. “And we do it for six shows. And all that two-month work gets put into twelve hours. And then it’s over.” This year, Mamma Mia! was slated to open on Friday, March 20. Like many other Saint Francis events, the musical has been put on hold as the school closed campus and moved to remote learning. It was just a week before their preview party when the cast and crew got the school’s email in the middle of rehearsal.

So what’s it like to get such a game-changing announcement surrounded by people you’ve been working with so closely for six months, only to learn that this show might not go on after all? While many in the cast were in the wings or the audience, part of the cast was onstage running a scene that included Noelle Merino (’20) who plays Sophie Sheridan; Eleanor Lowy (’21), who plays her mother Donna; and Jack Whitlow (’21) who plays Harry Bright, one of Sophie’s “dads.”

“It was a transition into a song, so we probably ran it twelve, thirteen times, just trying to figure out the timing,” said Jack. As Noelle and Eleanor began the song itself, Jack headed backstage to the dressing room. “People in the wings came running into the dressing room,” he said, “and I could tell immediately something was wrong.” Students on their phones or iPads in the wings, in the dressing room, and in the audience had gotten the email and knew that opening night at least was off. Noelle Merino was still on stage and hadn’t yet checked her email. She got the news a different way: “I saw Ms. Rose’s reaction before everyone else because she was facing the stage. Mr. Cerna was telling her, ‘Have you checked your email yet?’ So he handed his phone to her. And just based off her facial expressions, it was like, ‘oh no.’” Valentina Paredes (’21), one of the actors for Rosie, noted, “Something that stuck with me was seeing how Noelle continued with her song despite having been devastated hearing the news. That just shows her dedication to her art and was really admirable.”

Eventually, the directors had to end the run-through, and the cast circled up on stage. “It was really emotional to find out during rehearsal, but it was great to be with everyone,” said Kendall Adams (’21), one of the actors playing Tanya. “But I probably wouldn’t have rather had it anywhere else.” Grace Sutherland (’21), another actor for Tanya, agreed, “My favorite memory from rehearsal was sitting in a circle and sharing our feelings with each other when we found out we were getting shut down.” Even after the big circle, Patrick says, the seniors circled up with one another again. “That moment of nobody really saying anything, just taking it all in, was really a big moment.” One of Noelle’s favorite memories from the show is also from this emotional time: “I was kind of like a sobbing mess… two of the cast members who play Tanya and Rosie have a song called ‘Chiquitita’ where they sing it to Donna to make her feel better. And when they saw me crying, they both came up to me and started singing the song.”

Public schools throughout the state are expected not to reopen, and Saint Francis has also decided not to bring classes back to campus. Many seniors are looking at the real possibility of not being able to close out their last year with a show. However, there is still hope for the school to say “here we go again” to Mamma Mia! as soon as possible. Ms. Rose called in help to finish building the set, so it’s ready for a potential production. The company from which Saint Francis obtains its licensing rights to put on shows has also been accommodating, and the school has been able to extend its rights as long as necessary to perform. Members of the cast mentioned possibilities for a summer show in July or August, a concert-style show to sing through Mamma Mia!’s famous ABBA songs, or even rehearsals over Zoom to keep the cast’s harmonies and choreography in shape. If all else fails, Patrick Gammon joked, “all our costumes are still in the theater, so we have to go back either way to get all our stuff.”

Whether or not it’s really curtains for Mamma Mia! this year, the cast has plenty of love for the time they’ve spent perfecting the show in rehearsals. “This was a very very fun process, especially being a senior getting to help with the staging, like certain visual gags that aren’t in the script that I suggested,” said Patrick. Whether it’s stomping around in 70s go-go boots, getting to sing ABBA, or just building bonds with other performers, everyone I interviewed had lots to enjoy about the process, not just the product.

While Grace Sutherland noted, “I feel absolutely awful for the seniors,” for herself she has only one regret: “not taking more videos in rehearsal.” One video—and memory—from rehearsals is Valentina Paredes’s: “My song ‘Take A Chance’ included kissing Patrick Gammon’s character, Bill, and we had been putting it off as long as we could, the rehearsal before we got the news. We ran through the song, and the whole cast and crew witnessed my first kiss. Some people even recorded it so I can never forget it.” And from Patrick: if Mamma Mia! isn’t staged this year, “I’m sorry for being your first kiss for no reason.”

It’s just one example of the greatness of theater and the resilience of Saint Francis’s cast. After Mamma Mia! has been put in danger of not coming to fruition two years in a row, some might think that drama kids’ notorious superstitiousness might make it considered cursed. After all, say the name of the Scottish Play and actors might just kick you out of their theater. However, Grace says, “This pandemic isn’t about us. It’s about our whole planet and we’ve all acknowledged how lucky we are that we aren’t sick.” For the cast, this sense of perspective—and a genuine love for everything they do to perform—suffuses how they’ve been reacting to all this. “One thing that the drama community never loses is hope,” Valentina said. Jack Whitlow loves that he “was able to spend time where I consider my second home, on the stage. We’ll have a chance to use it later on, regardless of what comes our way.”

When you put months of work into a two-hour show, you’d think you’d be used to it ending abruptly. But it’s far worse if it ends with no performance at all. Kendall Adams told me, “I’d give anything to be able to sing through as Tanya again.” With a smile on her face, Noelle described one musical number where actors would have gone into the audience to dance with them, saying, “It would have been one of the most happy, lighthearted shows we would have put on.” Patrick emphasized, “Everyone up there loves performing, and if we get the chance, please come and see it.”

Categories: Entertainment, Features

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