By Dr. Anton Anderssen
Now on stage at Theatre on the Avenue in beautiful downtown Wyandotte is Downriver Actors’ Guild’s production of the Swedish Jukebox Musical Mamma Mia. This is one of the most difficult musicals to pull off because the music of ABBA is incredibly difficult to replicate. The female singers in ABBA, Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad (now known as Princess Anni-Frid Synni of Reuss, Countess of Plauen) have unique voices with extremely rare vocal ranges. This is the first time I have ever attended a Mamma Mia produced by Community Theatre – frankly I didn’t know how it could be done. ABBA music was highly synthesized, and traditional instrumentalists don’t produce those sounds. Fortunately, this show used a soundtrack, which made all the difference in the world.
I will be transparent, and disclose that Mamma Mia is my all-time favorite musical; I’ve seen it on Broadway and London’s West End more times than I can remember. ABBA was my favorite music when I was a teenager, and I have every ABBA recording ever produced, even the foreign language releases. I am almost impossible to please when it comes to substituting performers of ABBA music. Truth be told, I was disappointed with the voices of both Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan in the film version.
I liked Downriver Actors’ Guild’s production of Mamma Mia. First, the choreography was to die for. Spencer Genrich performed magic in this show with the dance routines; they also had very good talent. I felt Jacob Partrich and Marie Gury stood out for their precision. I can’t count how many musicals I have seen in my life, there have been probably thousands. I wondered how Jacob Partich was able to get his timing so flawlessly. It turned out he is a drummer, and drummers are experts at timing and rhythm. When I asked him how he learned to dance so well, instead of revealing he is already talented in performance and music, he gave all the credit to Spencer Genrich, the choreographer. I was really impressed by his unselfish, humble answer. Cory Shorter (Pepper) wowed the audience with his acrobatic dance moves; he performed Russian splits with ease. The entire dance ensemble got to show off their talent during “Money Money Money”. The boys revealed outstanding talent in “Lay All Your Love on Me”. Choreography in this show was simply fantastic.
Sam Ramirez plays Harry Bright; he shines like a star in both Thank You For the Music and Our Last Summer. If I were a playwright and needed a male lead that was voice-dependent, he would be my first pick. Remember, these songs are impossible for most people to sing – he had no difficulty whatsoever with pitch, and he has a very rich voice.
Ashley Gatesy plays Sophie, which is arguably the most difficult role because she has to come across as an angel who sounds like an angel. Although she does not have golden hair, she fits well in the role because she looks enough like Sam Carmichael (played by Rob Douglas). Douglas was a good match for Sam because he nailed Knowing me Knowing you, also he was a good match because he was convincing as a heterosexual. Many people assume all males in theatre are gay; finding a talented man who can also come across as a straight man is a challenge for most community theatre groups. The group was lucky to find him.
Melanie Aue is the vocal director. You practically have to be God to train voices to sing voices ABBA music; it is a monumental task. She did a phenomenal job getting the best voices out of each singer.
Denny Connors (Director) and Ashley Blevins (Assistant Director) have to be congratulated for their imagination in making this production more racy and funny than the Broadway version. The use of black fabric figures in “Under Attack”, the recipient of the wedding floral bouquet, the imaginative use of props as microphones made this show clever and surprising. One of the props accidentally fell out of Tanya’s bag. Betsy Genrich (Tanya) didn’t let the prop malfunction get in her way, although it was the proverbial “elephant in the room” for about 10 minutes while the aunties tried to comfort Donna during “Chiquitita.” It wasn’t an elephant per se, but it was rather elephant sized. Debbie Aue (Rosie) seized the opportunity to use it as microphone stand-in, and provided hilarious physical comedy using it in an over-the-top simulation.
Tanya’s character may have crossed the line when she grabbed Pepper’s junk in “Does Your Mother Know?” Tanya is supposed to have been married to Donald Trump type men, not be Donald Trump herself. There was a mixed reaction from the audience – some thought it was hilarious and others thought it was inappropriate touching.
Annie Mann was a good choice for Donna. After seeing Meryl Streep play Donna, I kept comparing Mann to Streep. They are similar in many ways. Annie Mann is convincing as a strong woman facing a myriad of obstacles. By the time the show got to “Slipping Though My Fingers” I loved the way Donna was portrayed. It’s difficult to find an actress to be a leading lady yet not come across as a diva; Annie Mann gave us a down-to-earth, very likeable Donna.
I believe Donna embodies a lot of the qualities which makes Downriver Actors’ Guild a beloved community theatre group. They are a down-to-earth organization, comprised of people who work very hard to follow their dreams. In particular, I saw a lot of passion and dedication from Melanie Aue, who wore many hats in this production. Without her guidance and talent, I don’t know if this show could have made it to the stage; it is a really tough show to perform. But she pulled it off. Kudos to Aue and the awesome cast – you did an ABBA-fastic job.
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