GAHANNA, Ohio (May 11) — History lines the hallways at Gahanna Lincoln High School in Ohio, just a few blocks away from the John Glenn International Airport in Columbus.
Photos visible near the auditorium show that the Class of 1914 had nine graduates; this month, about 600 students will walk across the stage at commencement. But before that, about 100 students took part in the production of the spring musical, Mamma Mia!
The musical—more of an ABBA concert in disguise, but no one seems to mind—has reached historical proportions on its own. It ran for 5,758 performances on Broadway, from October 18, 2001 to September 12, 2015, making it currently the ninth-longest Broadway run in history and the longest-running jukebox musical of all time.
Four shows were completely sold out at Gahanna Lincoln, with attendees ranging from former theater stars and family members to a couple of seventh-grade girls, who sat right in front of me and said they couldn’t wait to get to high school so they could participate in the musicals. And although they weren’t born yet when ABBA first sang the songs that have been woven into this musical, there’s no denying the catchy tunes and strong beat of disco, which had them bouncing up and down or swaying side-to-side in their seats throughout most of the show. Based on how captivated they were, I would say with all confidence that the musical theater program at Gahanna Lincoln has at least five good years left. Probably more.
The first downbeat brought to the stage the lead character in the plot, Sophie (Cami Weldon). “I have a dream, a fantasy,” she sings, depositing three letters in the mailbox—something about finding out who her father is by inviting three of her mother’s lovers at the time to her wedding.
The storyline, however, is completely inconsequential to the musical, which is totally about the music. Good thing Ms Weldon can sing! It’s rare that a high school girl would be able to carry a melody like a singer while carrying the passion of a character actor. Ms Weldon did all that, and moreover, she did it while kicking up her legs with her friends, while balancing on a bed sheet in her nightgown, and while demanding that her finacé lay all his love on her. The occasional cracks in her voice injected so much warmth into her character that I can only think they were completely intentional.
And while Sophie spends a good part of the play in her nightgown, her finacé, Sky (Brendan Polenchar), spends a few minutes in a wedding dress and a few minutes in nothing but a bathing suit. The action takes place in the Greek isles, after all, so that would be considered normal attire. The location leads to one riotous dance number by some athletic boys in flippers, but still, I wonder if those seventh-grade girls didn’t know the bathing suit scene was coming.
Finally, the plot of the musical is driven by Donna (Sara Tuohy), Sophie’s mom, who was unaware Sophie had invited her three former lovers. As Donna’s first number with her friends morphs like a DJ’s mixing board into “Dancing Queen,” this high school production adds a sense of timelessness: 17-year-olds, playing older women, sing about a 17-year-old dancing queen.
Donna’s friend Rosie (Revae Butler) was one of those who lusted after one of Donna’s lovers once upon a time. She asserts her self-confidence and reveals her inner desires just before Sophie’s wedding, when she tells Bill (Nate Asamoah) to take a chance on her. This has the effect of activating his hormones, as if he were a bull with high testosterone levels in what was one of the most entertaining song and dance duets in the show. So that’s how a bull does it.
The other potential sperm donor is Harry (Colin Smith), who recalls with Donna, both of them in full and glorious voice, their last summer together. He tells her she was the last woman he was with, even after 20 years, but Donna has always been devoted to her free-spirited life and her daughter. For better or worse, that’s how it worked out for her. “The gods may throw a dice, their minds as cold as ice,” she sings to another of Sophie’s potential fathers later in the play. “And someone way down here loses someone dear,” she continues. “The winner takes it all.”
Note to the directors: Unless the voices are coming from heaven or something, let’s allow the audience to see any characters who are singing, including back-up vocals. Of course, that means putting them on the stage, which means they have to be doing something. More attention needs to be paid in future productions to what non-speaking characters are doing on the stage, particularly if non-speaking characters are engaged in nonsense banter or activities.
I counted last year, and I have seen more than 1,200 musicals on high school stages across the country over the many years I’ve been doing this. I honestly can’t remember hearing the S-word in a high school musical, so assuming my memory isn’t failing (it could be), thanks to the students in Gahanna for giving me a new experience, even if it came along with the music of my own youth. Seeing the sequined bell-bottom pant suits, the platform shoes, and the disco dance moves completely engaged the audience and added professionalism that took this production beyond the realm of typical high school stage reality.
I have a dream, a fantasy
To help me through reality
And my destination makes it worth the while
Pushing through the darkness still another mile
I believe in angels
Something good in everything I see
With music and lyrics by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, book by Catherine Johnson, and original conception (no pun intended) by Judy Craymer, Mamma Mia! is in performance at Lincoln High School in Gahanna, Ohio, May 9–12. Directed by Cynthia Skinza Macioce, Kevin Dengel (pit orchestra), Jeremy Lahman (vocals), Chris Wagner (tech), and Taya Lukacsko and Kristin Hymrod (choreography). The show can be rated PG-13 for language and adult thematic material.