By Kristina Hoti
The Warwick Valley High School (WVHS) Drama Club production of Mamma Mia!, under the direction and advisement of Nick DiLeo, performed this weekend to standing ovations and dancing in the aisles. After a special performance for senior citizens on Thurs., Mar. 14, the show opened to the general public on Fri., Mar. 15 and gave two performances on Sat., Mar. 16.
“When you have 70- and 80-year-old people dancing in the aisles,” said a rightfully proud DiLeo, of the students’ Thursday afternoon performance, “you know they’ve done something right.”
As the cast prepared for their opening night in the south cafeteria of the high school, the production’s very large cast took great care in applying stage make-up and getting their costumes just right. This group of students, as indicated by 11th grader Charles Phelan, who played the role of Pepper, “is from all walks of life.”
Senior Ethan Tuomala, who has participated in drama club since he was in the second grade at Pine Island Elementary School, added, “It’s the most accepting and fun community to be a part of.”
As ninth grader Natalie Kitchin curled her hair, Bella Pizza, also in ninth grade, reflected that this was her first time performing.
“I’m really enjoying it,” she said, “I really love [the movie] Mamma Mia!, so when I heard that was the show, I said, ‘I have to do it.’”
When the auditorium doors opened to the large crowd gathering in the atrium 30 minutes before curtain, DiLeo joined the cast for an opening night pep-talk. He reminded them that professionalism dictates that they remain in the backstage areas once “the house” was opened to their audience, saying that if they needed anything at all, he was there and could be reached.
“It’s now your show; have a wonderful time.…I’m going to sit back and enjoy your show,” said DiLeo.
The production, with music and lyrics by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, some songs by Stig Andersson, and book by Catherine Johnson, was produced by Donna Nestor, choreographed by Beth Maisonet, student-directed by David Ab, and musically directed by Noreen Hanson (vocals) and Chris Persad (pit band). Featuring the music of the Swedish pop group, ABBA, it tells the story of 20-year-old Sophie Sheridan, played by senior Madeleine Wadeson, who has never met her father, and her single mom, Donna, played by senior Grace McGowan.
Mamma Mia! opens on the eve of Sophie’s wedding day, with Wadeson delivering “I Have a Dream” in a beautiful and controlled soprano voice, as her character reflects on her upcoming big day. Soon, her friends arrive at the Greek island where her mother owns a hotel property, and Sophie confesses to her bridesmaids (played by Alyssa Folkertsma and Stephanie Menoutis) in the fun and upbeat “Honey, Honey,” that she has secretly read her mother’s old diary and learned that there are three potential men who might be her father and that she has surreptitiously invited them all to her wedding. Her hope is that she will be able to determine immediately who her father is and that he will walk her down the aisle.
Grace McGowan leads the first full company number in “Money Money Money,” as she laments the strain of operating her business and working to make ends meet. McGowan’s strong voice and commanding stage presence stood out, together with Maisonet’s intricate choreography that kept the large ensemble moving and the audience’s feet tapping.
The three contenders for Sophie’s father are Harry Bright, a rich banker played by Daniel Brenner; Bill Austin, a world traveler played by Viktor Galitzine; and Sam Carmichael, a divorced family man played by William Theodore Odell.
Sophie’s fiancé, Sky, portrayed by Ethan Tuomala, exhibits just a tad bit of jealousy that Sophie is seeking another man in her life, and their relationship is tested later in the show when he learns that she has attempted to surprise everyone by inviting her father to give her away. Tuomala and Wadeson interacted naturally together, their voices blending, as they create the quintessential picture of young love.
Completing the set of lead players are Donna Sheridan’s two best friends and the singer-dancer’s cohorts of her youth, who soon arrive for the wedding. This comedic duo of Tanya, played by Sophia Romano, and Rosie, played by Ellie Hanson, kept the audience laughing and gasping with their show-stopping antics.
This strong ensemble of leads each exhibited a level of comfort and professionalism onstage that is not often seen at the high school level. From their precision in delivering complex vocal harmonies, to their comedic timing and authentic reactions, each scene and song kept the audience absorbed and actively engaged in this upbeat and light-hearted production.
The story concludes with Donna finding her lost love in the character of Sam Carmichael. As we see the story of their past unfold, McGowan’s impressive ability to portray a conflicted woman 20-plus years her senior, together with Odell’s genuine performance, highlighted by his second-act tenor solo, “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” has the audience rooting for them.
With the happy conclusion of Donna and Sam’s love story, Sophie and Sky realize that they might want to explore the world first before marrying so young; however, the wedding is not wasted, as the 20-year-olds turn their place at the alter over to Sophie’s mom and her old flame.
Even after the story’s conclusion, with Wadeson’s lovely reprisal of “I Have a Dream,” the show transcended into a seemingly non-stop dance party. After full company bows, the audience was treated to a final costume change and burst of color when all of the leads emerge in full disco-regalia, complete with neon, sequin-studded dresses and leisure suits, and white platform shoes, as Donna, Tanya, and Rosie took center stage and the cast took to the aisles, keeping the audience on their feet and clapping to “Mamma Mia!” and “Waterloo.”
As impressive as this production was on its own, this particular WVHS spring musical represented a special milestone in that it marked advisor and director Nick DiLeo’s 20th year at the helm of the WVHS Drama Club. DiLeo began teaching English in the fall of 1996 and that very year began lending his talents to the Drama Club, with a brief three-year hiatus between then and now.
In recognition of his many years of dedication to the Drama Club, producer Donna Nestor organized a surprise for DiLeo after the final performance. Unbeknownst to him, she conducted a social media outreach to the many WVHS Drama Club alumni who have worked with DiLeo during his 20-year tenure. After the cast of Mamma Mia! expressed their gratitude, presenting flowers to their vast network of support, from costumers to lighting and set designers, and culminating with the director himself, DiLeo addressed the graduating seniors among his cast and crew.
“I always say it’s never ‘good-bye,’ it’s ‘see you soon,’” he told them, and presented white roses to each one, wishing them “Good luck and see you soon!”
When he concluded, he was surprised when producer Donna Nestor took the microphone and presented him with an engraved plaque commemorating his 20 years of dedication to the Drama Club, along with a gift card contributed by the WVHS Drama Club alumni. To his even greater surprise, she then turned things over to the band, as they began to play “’Til Him,” a song from the musical The Producers and many of his former Drama Club students all began to join the cast onstage to sing to him, creating an impressive visual representation of the impact he has had on so many young performers.
Comments on the Facebook group Nestor created to organize this surprise contain comments such as, “You helped me find my voice and gave me a place in this world where I felt I belonged,” as stated by Imani Finn-Garland.
TJ Hansen said, “My experience…under your leadership taught me the basics of professionalism: punctuality, civility, inclusion, dedication, and the definition of sangfroid…taking my next step, I look back and see you helping me take the first.”
DiLeo remained onstage, greeting and taking photos with his former students, who remained long after the conclusion of the tribute.