Village Theatre’s “Mamma Mia!” Is Conventional, but Empowering

Mamma Mia! has nothing to do with race. However, that is exactly director Faith Bennett Russell’s point; her rendition of Mamma Mia! at Village Theatre takes something familiar and gives it substance through a social lens. Bennett Russell does so by incorporating West African culture and intentionally highlighting actors of color. The deeper meaning is not obvious upon casual viewing, but the production does the concept justice while staying true to the script’s lighthearted tone.

Mamma Mia! was created when producer Judy Craymer hired playwright Catherine Johnson in 1997 to create a jukebox musical compiling the songs of the Swedish pop group ABBA. The somewhat predictable, but entertaining farce Johnson concocted follows a bride-to-be named Sophie who sneakily contacts three of her mother Donna’s former boyfriends to find whom her father is and ask him to walk her down the aisle.

I have seen the film adaptation and three live productions now, but the show is still an utter joy. The group numbers are incredibly catchy and the plot is fluffier than cotton candy.

The first thing I noticed while watching Village’s production is that I forgot how good Johnson’s writing is at concealing that the show is a jukebox musical; if I was told that the songs were created for the show, I would believe it in a heartbeat. In spite of this, I think Johnson should have cut some of the lower-energy duets and solo songs for a tighter and more engaging story.

The actors are all adequate triple threats, but a few of the performances are notable. Lisa Estridge’s charismatic Donna shines while Varinique Davis’ uniquely sassy Sophie is hit-or-miss. The show begins with Davis performing “I Have a Dream” as if each lyric has a beat to hit with no sense of cohesion. Luckily, her immersion in the character increases over the course of the show.

As Donna’s former boyfriends, Shabazz Green (Sam Carmichael) is a pleasure to the ears while Mark Emerson (Harry Bright) delivers most of the night’s laughs. Nate Tenenbaum (Bill Austin) is both eccentric and vocally impressive, but I don’t find his portrayal of Bill as funny as those I have seen in past productions.

Much of the show’s choreography is lively and captures the spirit of the soundtrack. The titular number’s lighting and blocking hilariously transports the audience into Donna’s mind by freezing the world of the show, but its inventiveness doesn’t feel consistent with the staging of the other numbers.

On the other hand, the typical showstopper “Dancing Queen” starts abruptly and is shockingly unmemorable. This illustrates that if staged poorly, even great music can easily lose its energy.

In addition, some of the staging is uncomfortably bawdy: for example, “Honey, Honey” is filled with lewd physicality compared to the giggly interpretations I’m used to seeing. Although I am all for vulgarity in musical theatre (two of my favorite musicals are The Book of Mormon and Avenue Q), I find the conventional approach to the song in other productions funnier and more charming.

Nonetheless, the cast and creative team dazzle, delight, and deliver everything you could want from the show: humor, heart, and energy. In this way, it is a very traditional production of the show, with an emphasis on promoting artists of color (something I’ve appreciated seeing a lot this season across Seattle theatres).

Although the show features strong BIPOC representation, the audience is largely white. I am happy that Village has started providing more opportunities to BIPOC artists to tell their stories and I’m also glad that they are creating fresh interpretations of classic musicals to reflect our current values as a society. Next, I think it is important for the theatre to continue increasing accessibility so their work can serve and be seen by the community it intends to uplift.


Mamma Mia! Is playing at Village Theatre Issaquah now through July 10. The show will then move to Everett to play July 15 through August 7. Tickets are now available online.  


Kyle Gerstel is a 15-year-old musical theatre geek who couldn’t be happier to have found TeenTix in 2020. In addition to writing for the TeenTix Newsroom and his school newspaper The Islander, Kyle frequently performs with Youth Theatre Northwest and works with Penguin Productions to foster an equitable theatre community. When not in rehearsal, you can probably find him writing poetry, rewatching Promising Young Woman or obsessing over Bo Burnham.


This article was written on special assignment for The Seattle Times through the TeenTix Press Corps, a teen arts journalism program sponsored by TeenTix, a youth empowerment and arts access nonprofit organization.

The Jaws-Dropping Story Behind Seattle Rep’s “Bruce”

It takes a village to scare a generation into never swimming in the ocean again. During the filming of Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster Jaws, Spielberg and his team were faced with incessant challenges involving budget, the weather in Martha’s Vineyard (where they shot most of the film), and perhaps most notably, a dysfunctional mechanical shark named Bruce. Years later, Richard Oberacker and Robert Taylor realized it was the perfect material for a musical.

Bruce, Taylor and Oberacker’s new musical premiering at Seattle Rep this May, follows the tumultuous filming process of Jaws as described in The Jaws Log by Carl Gottlieb, one of the film’s screenwriters.

“Being a film buff, I had always heard some of the crazy stories about what had gone on that summer to make the film and how insane it was,” Oberacker said. “Before I met Rob, around the 25th anniversary of the DVD, they did a documentary about [Jaws] that got released as a bonus feature [and] I started to realize that the backstory of how the film had gotten made was kind of the perfect hero story that musicals often follow.

“There’s something about our brains that finds it very delicious to find out origin stories to things we already know and love. All of the masters have to learn. We’re finding out how Spielberg became Spielberg—he wasn’t born the guy who did Schindler’s List [or] Jurassic Park. He was born with innate talent, there’s no question, but that summer, he was only 26 years old [and] he had very little film experience on this level, so he surrounded himself with people who were much more seasoned than he was. He spent that first film learning from the best and in exchange, with his own innate talent, he taught them something.”

Eventually, Oberacker got ahold of The Jaws Log and thought that if the story was to be adapted as a musical, he would use the book as a blueprint rather than trying to collect interviews independently. Eventually, he and Taylor brought their idea to Gottlieb. “Finally, we got the nerve to cold email and call Carl Gottlieb and say, ‘Hey, we have a crazy idea to pitch you,’ and Richard went out to LA and met with him at the Roosevelt Hotel,” Taylor said.

headshot of Richard Oberacker
Writer and lyricist Richard Oberacker. COURTESY OF SEATTLE REP

“We were supposed to actually go have lunch together and we never left the lobby,” Oberacker recounted. “We just talked and talked and talked for a couple hours and he got it immediately. He thought it was hilarious and just crazy enough that it might work.”

Unlike most book adaptations, the writers were able to draw from additional sources. “There are things in discussions we’ve had with Carl that are not in the book, the personalities and things people were thinking,” Oberacker noted. “We’re working from a much broader pallet of inspiration.”

Oberacker and Taylor also took inspiration from their Tony Award-winning Broadway musical Bandstand. “We worked with Andy Blankenbuehler on Bandstand and [he] taught us so much,” Taylor said. “If you can do multiple things at once, do them.” 

“By going through that process with Andy, we wrote into the original draft of Bruce that sense of layering [and] we took stronger risks,” Oberacker added.

For Bruce, the duo is thrilled to be collaborating with director/choreographer Donna Feore. “Two years before the pandemic hit, Richard and I read this rave review of a Music Man production up at [The] Stratford Festival in Toronto and it was Donna’s production of The Music Man,” Taylor said.

Set building for “Bruce”. PHOTO BY ALLISON DUNMORE

“It was just absolutely brilliant. It was functioning on so many levels that I haven’t seen productions of The Music Man function on prior to that or since then, so we kind of became superfans instantly.”

The following summer, Taylor and Oberacker were looking for a director, so Taylor emailed Feore and told her that he was returning to Stratford to see two of her upcoming productions and would love to meet her if she was available.

“By the time I arrived there, about four days after I had emailed her the script, she had been through it three or four times, she had given it to multiple friends, and it was clear that this was the perfect person to direct this show,” Taylor said.

“She’s just so creative and honestly, she’s fun to hang out with,” Oberacker attested. “There are a lot of laughs [and] she is very methodical about every word. She plans very far ahead and expects everyone she’s working with to do their homework.”

Recreating Jaws’ chaotic production process for the stage hasn’t been without its own challenges. “There’s a whole kind of incredible arc before they actually land in Martha’s Vineyard for the summer to start shooting and it’s written on the page very, very fast and it jump cuts from office to office,” Oberacker said. “Donna was very challenged by that, [but] what [she and the designers] created was so different from what we had imagined at all; it is so completely crazy what they have chosen to do and when we saw the design, we almost wept because it’s so brilliant and so simple. It’s an incredible magic trick.”

headshot of Robert Taylor
Writer and lyricist Robert Taylor. COURTESY OF SEATTLE REP

“Then, we couldn’t figure out how you are going to get from this magic trick to Martha’s Vineyard physically, and when they showed us how it happens, our jaws fell open.”

The show was set to open in 2020, but the pandemic delayed the production. However, according to Oberacker and Taylor, the pandemic has made the show more important than ever. “The show became more relevant over the past two years,” Oberacker said. “It was always fun, it was always a story about imagination and overcoming odds, but it has a resonance now that it simply didn’t have before. We were able to incorporate what was happening to us personally as artists in a very visceral way so it made it onto the page by virtue of sort of living a version of the chaos and troubles they were living that summer as well.”

“The show is an ode to how imagination and the ability to [improvise] is what will take you through almost any situation and it’s what we all have to do,” Taylor added. “This was a group of people that set out to make this film thinking they were going to have access to all of these things, in particular [a] giant mechanical shark, but the shark would just keep refusing to cooperate. Somehow, you still have to find a way to keep moving forward and being creative.”


Bruce is playing at Seattle Rep from May 27-June 26, 2022.



Kyle Gerstel is a 15-year-old musical theatre geek who couldn’t be happier to have found TeenTix in 2020. In addition to writing for the TeenTix Newsroom and his school newspaper The Islander, Kyle frequently performs with Youth Theatre Northwest and works with Penguin Productions to foster an equitable theatre community. When not in rehearsal, you can probably find him writing poetry, rewatching The Cabin in the Woods or obsessing over Bo Burnham.

This article was written on special assignment for Encore Spotlight through the TeenTix Press Corps, a program that promotes critical thinking, communication and information literacy through criticism and journalism practice for teens. TeenTix is a youth empowerment and arts access nonprofit.

All the World’s a Song in Village Theatre’s “Songs for a New World”

The world is back to being a stage and Village Theatre is returning with it. The company’s first mainstage production since the pandemic began, Jason Robert Brown’s Songs for a New World, will be running from January 12–February 13, 2022 in Issaquah and February 18–March 13, 2022 in Everett.

Each song in the show features an independent story, but they all highlight characters on the precipice of potentially life-changing decisions. Teen writer Kyle Gerstel sat down with performers Alexandria Henderson (Woman 2) and Cal Mitchell (Man 1) to discuss their experiences returning to live theatre, as well as the burning relevance of the show’s theme of inciting change to create the life you want to live and the world you want to live in.

Kyle Gerstel: When were each of you first introduced to the show?

Cal Mitchell: I was first introduced to the show my freshman year of college, [but] I didn’t really know what it was about until I got in a room with a bunch of other musical theatre people and [realized] there’s so much more to it.

Alexandria Henderson: I’m actually not very familiar with the show; I know of a song or two based on pageantry [and] audition books, like girls who sing “Stars and the Moon,” which is a very popular number, but other than that I didn’t know the whole show before now.

Each of you play a wide variety of characters in the show, so how do you differentiate them while maintaining a sense of honesty?

Henderson: I personally love being an ensemble member. Lead roles are fun, but I love being in the ensemble because you can make up your own person, make up your own backstory, and it’s kind of like doing that, but for each of these songs. Every song we sing in the show has a theme that can resonate with someone. 

What have you learned from participating in the production?

Henderson: The music is very difficult, [but] in a good way—it thrills me to say how difficult it is. It’s kind of taking me back to being an active learner.

How do you think the theme of choice is relevant going into 2022?

Mitchell: I think in this next year, there are a lot of people that are going to have to look at their surroundings, look at where they are, and look at who they are. Where is my precipice moment? Where do I make a big change that can literally affect which way I go in my life?

Henderson: I’m looking forward to 2022, but I’m healthily cautious now. We have to do what we can to make sure we can stay at work in 2022, [and] as far as choices are concerned, making the choice to get vaccinated and mask up.

What is your advice for high schoolers that wish to pursue theatre considering the current college climate?

Mitchell: Going into college, know that you are what you get out of it and what you get out of it is what you make out of it.

Henderson: Be a filter, not a sponge. This career is a lifelong learning process.

Mitchell: Another thing is—I wish someone had told me this while I was still young—understanding that you’re not everyone’s cup of tea and that’s fine. Some people’s taste buds are a bit off, but you’re still worthy of working and you’re going to be right for something. You just might not be right for what you expect.

Have you clicked right back into performing live despite the current precautions or has returning to normalcy been a slower transition mentally?

Henderson: I think the difference is that we’re all coming back with this newfound gratitude and reverence for what we do. Everyone is especially concerned about our health and wellness, including mental health and wellness. It feels like home, but bumped up a notch. Yes, we’re back to doing what we love, but also there’s a new air breathing into it.


Songs for a New World plays from January 12–February 13, 2022 at Village Theatre Issaquah and February 18–March 13, 2022 at Village Theatre Everett. Tickets are available online.


Kyle Gerstel is a 15-year-old musical theatre geek who couldn’t be happier to have found TeenTix in 2020. In addition to writing for TeenTix and his school newspaper The Islander, Kyle frequently performs with Youth Theatre Northwest and works with Penguin Productions to foster an equitable theatre community. When not in rehearsal, you can probably find him writing comedy songs, rewatching Airplane!, or using the Oxford comma.

This article was written on special assignment for Encore Spotlight through the TeenTix Press Corps, a program that promotes critical thinking, communication and information literacy through criticism and journalism practice for teens. TeenTix is a youth empowerment and arts access nonprofit.

Seattle Opera’s “La Bohème” is a Touching Spectacle for McCaw Hall’s Returning Audiences

Before the curtains rose, they already glistened. As the largely AARP card-valid audience buzzed with excitement, I immediately felt out of place: as an opera virgin with an aversion to high art, I was unsure whether I would enjoy a supposed masterpiece in a form known for its formality. However, despite the libretto’s many flaws, Seattle Opera’s sensational vocalists and sweeping scenic design immersed me in the world of La Bohème, dazzling, delighting, and boring me along the way.

All seven principal performers were thoroughly impressive, though I found myself particularly enamored by Kang Wang’s (Rodolfo) soaring falsettone. While his co-star Keri Alkema’s (Mimì) voice was also strong, it didn’t modulate throughout the course of the show, resulting in her arc feeling underdeveloped. This incited my sour reaction to the ending, in which I (spoiler alert) anxiously awaited her death. Nonetheless, the relatively small ensemble filled the space with Giacomo Puccini’s score, a feat worth celebrating.

I was equally enchanted by the stunning scenery and cleverly integrated lighting—the two worked together to brilliantly recreate natural light via pseudo-windows within the set, producing a sense of depth I’ve seldom seen in theatre. Despite the sheer beauty of these visual elements, they detracted from the artistry and intimacy of the piece—no matter how gorgeous a stage picture is, theatricality should enhance the story or else it distracts from it.

The show follows four struggling artists (Rodolfo, Marcello, Colline, Schaunard) as they navigate lovers (Mimì and Musetta), landlords (Benoît), and tuberculosis. The show’s overly sentimental tone didn’t feel authentic considering the characters’ circumstances. I’d argue this was due to the libretto’s focus on rushed romanticism—for instance, Rudolfo and Mimì meet and proclaim their love for one another in the same scene. Meanwhile, the repetitive nature of Puccini’s score was emotionally numbing, creating a disconnect between the characters and audience. If the show took more time with the plot but moved at a slightly faster pace emotionally, I believe it would’ve strengthened my engagement with the characters.

The Seattle Opera chorus walks among the …stunning scenery and cleverly integrated lighting.” Photo by Philip Newton.

As I navigated a sea of gray hair at intermission, I was curious as to why so many older consumers of art are drawn to a story about the struggles of young adults. I believe this is due to the show’s nostalgic value and absence of irreverence. Even as a teenager, watching the experiences of those younger than me in life and art returns me to a glamorized version of those times. In La Bohème, this is supported by a goofily innocent sense of humor.

However, the show’s exaggerated situational comedy reminded me of a cartoon, which I found peculiar considering the vastly different social contexts and conventions for the art forms—perhaps high and low art are more similar than we’d like to admit and one medium shouldn’t be viewed as more important than the other. Likewise, we should avoid the societal expectation that opera is solely for older or more sophisticated arts consumers—it is a medium that can be appreciated and enjoyed by all ages, so it should be treated as such.

While I believe Rent, a modern adaptation of the show, is a more energetic and relatable portrayal of love, loss, and the pursuit of a creative life, La Bohème’s innocent humor and focus on romanticism successfully presents the story with an undertone of warmth. It’s difficult to determine whether I enjoyed the piece or simply appreciated it, but it’s a spectacle to be reckoned with and a worthy experience nonetheless. In addition, the theme of losing loved ones is more relevant than ever as COVID-19 continues to take lives every day.

In school, we’re asked whether we’re passionate about science or the arts as if the two compete. However, before the show, the artists thanked scientists for helping performing arts return in-person via the COVID-19 vaccines. This demonstrates that the two aren’t mutually exclusive: science allows us to exist; art allows us to live.


La Bohème runs at McCaw Hall through October 30. Tickets are available for purchase online.


Kyle Gerstel is a 14-year-old theatre geek who couldn’t be happier to have found TeenTix in 2020. He’s currently directing an entirely youth-driven production of The Laramie Project and assistant directing a local production of Metamorphoses. When not writing articles for the TeenTix Newsroom, you can find him performing in Youth Theatre Northwest productions, writing comedy songs, or obsessing over Bo Burnham.

This article was written on special assignment for Encore Spotlight through the TeenTix Press Corps, a program that promotes critical thinking, communication and information literacy through criticism and journalism practice for teens. TeenTix is a youth empowerment and arts access nonprofit. 

In Kids We Trust

It’s not every day you see a musical in which a large portion of the creative team isn’t old enough to legally drink. This summer, Village Theatre is producing three.

“There’s not a lot of opportunities for young students to have artistic control over a production. What we strive for here are professional-feeling productions that are driven by youth. A big part of that is trusting that these students have the capabilities, vision and skills to be able to put together a show—what we do is provide resources, space, time and guidance.”

This is Joel Arpin, the KIDSTAGE production manager at Village Theatre Issaquah. He oversees every element of their productions from auditions and intern recruitment to facility management. Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking with him as well as young artists Lacey Jack and Rachel Faria to discuss Village’s Summer Independent Program, a unique project in which youth artists are given the resources to autonomously produce a show of their choosing.

“Village is one of the first theatres to trust kids,” said Jack, a KIDSTAGE veteran and incoming college freshman currently portraying Hope in this season’s production of Urinetown. “Most will hold your hand and as soon as you begin to take a step in the wrong direction, you’re done. Are there negatives to that? Absolutely. However, I don’t mind the mistakes because you’re either going to make them now or in 10 years when you’re finally on your own.”

Unlike most youth arts programs, the Summer Independent Program has been completely youth-driven from its inception. “Students came to us asking for the responsibility of being able to create a show on their own, so we turned the theatre over to them for the summer,” said Arpin. “We offer five shows a year in each KIDSTAGE location, but this is the only one that’s completely student-driven.”

“Students come forward in August/September to submit a proposal that contains three shows they would like to produce as well as why they think they’d be good choices based on ticket sales, messaging, etc.,” Arpin explained. KIDSTAGE’s slogan is “skills for theatre…skills for life,” so Village tries to create as many learning opportunities within the process as possible. “Students used to pitch an entire team, but we later decided to make interviewing designer applications a part of the process so students can build their interview skills—it’s very rare as a young adult that you’re the person learning how to interview.”

Production image of "Spitfire Grill", a production of Village Theatre's summer independent program.
Youth actors performing in “Spitfire Grill”. Courtesy of Village Theatre.

However, having such independence can be overwhelming. Faria, an incoming college senior and director of this season’s production of Spitfire Grill, claimed, “I sometimes felt a little bit lost and didn’t know exactly what to do next.”

In order to provide support, Village sets up mentors to help guide these young artists. “You can chat with your mentor when you have questions or need more guidance on how to approach a situation,” specified Arpin.

Faria continued, “It was nice to have advice, but we were never told ‘no’ outside of things due to budget or safety. It’s something you just can’t find everywhere else, to be able to do something at this scale in a way that feels so independent. It’s a huge learning experience for everyone involved.”

This also creates a unique opportunity for the actors, as this is the one program Village Theatre provides in which the focus is on the designers and director. Arpin stated, “We call it summer independent because the designers and director are independently learning and growing, but it’s also a chance for the student actors to no longer have direct professional support.”

“I was so used to working with adults,” Jack commented. “But it’s very exciting for me as an actor to work with these fresh minds because you can relate on more levels.”

Village also helps prepare young artists for the world of professional theatre by running rehearsals with equity rules. Jack emphasized, “Performing is so much more than the physical act onstage—it’s about learning how to deal with friends and how to talk to people as well as how to sing, act and dance. Village wants you to be a good performer, but they also want you to be a great human being.”

Production image of "Jasper in Deadland", a production of Village Theatre's summer independent program.
Youth actors performing in “Jasper in Deadland”. Courtesy of Village Theatre

Inevitably, the COVID-19 pandemic heavily impacted the program. According to Faria, “A lot of [the artists] weren’t able to be in the same room until tech rehearsals.”

However, this unique situation had its benefits as well. “Typically, the Summer Independent productions are performed in houses with under 200 seats, so instead, we moved to our main theatres (500-seat houses where our mainstage productions typically perform), allowing us to sell 200 tickets, social distance, and be under 50% capacity,” Arpin shared. “This also allowed our students to work in a larger space with more access to equipment.”

Faria added, “We got access to all of these professional facilities including a fly system and construction space that you wouldn’t really expect for a production put on by a bunch of 20-year-olds.” The extraordinary opportunity to access such advanced technical equipment allowed for the designers to fully embrace their creative visions and learn how to operate professional equipment, demonstrating Village Theatre’s effort to do as much as they can to support these young artists.

The tasks of creating three completely youth-led productions and being one of the first live theatres to reopen are daunting individually, but the students learned to overcome both challenges and contribute to Washington’s cultural landscape as we begin to transition back to in-person theatre. As Arpin said, “The students this summer walked into a situation in which they didn’t know what it would look like and I am so proud and impressed by what they have put together.”


The Summer Independent production of The Spitfire Grill ran from July 9-18. Jasper in Deadland is running now through July 25 in Everett. Urinetown will run July 30–August 8 in Issaquah.


Kyle Gerstel is a 14-year-old theatre geek who couldn’t be happier to have found TeenTix in 2020. He recently directed his school’s first musical in over a decade as well as the online production Hamleton: A Quaranteen’d Musical. When not writing articles for the TeenTix Newsroom, you can find him acting in Youth Theatre Northwest productions, writing comedy songs, or obsessing over Bo Burnham.

This article was written on special assignment for Encore Spotlight through the TeenTix Press Corps, a program that promotes critical thinking, communication and information literacy through criticism and journalism practice for teens. TeenTix is a youth empowerment and arts access nonprofit.