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.

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. 

“And After So Long Grief, Such Festivity”: Seattle Shakespeare Company and Their Audience Reunite After a Year Apart

After more than a year without an in-person production, the Seattle Shakespeare Company has returned on-stage with a heartfelt, hilarious, and overwhelmingly joyful rendition of The Comedy of Errors as a part of its outdoor Wooden O series. Through incredible acting, smart design choices, and a whole lot of heart, the small yet dedicated cast and production team have crafted the perfect antidote to many months of COVID-induced isolation, and given us a great reason to come together and laugh after such an exhausting and saddening year.

One of Shakespeare’s earliest and briefest plays, The Comedy of Errors follows two sets of identical twins, separated at birth, through a full day of hilarious misadventures, including bouts of mistaken identity, witchcraft, and an attempted exorcism. Taking place in the ancient Greek city of Ephesus, the play ends with an unexpected family reunion between the twins themselves and their parents.

A small cast of five talented actors was all it took to bring the show to life. Through superb acting and simple, yet effective costuming and prop use, actors MJ Daly, Kelly Karcher, Rico Lastrapes, Kate Witt, and R. Hamilton Wright managed to play 15 characters (and two sets of identical twins) between them. Shakespeare plays are complicated, and difficult to perform clearly for modern audiences, but the additional challenge of acting in multiple roles didn’t seem to phase the cast in the slightest. Although many scenes (especially those with more than five characters) had the potential to get confusing, the cast made do with simple and hilariously brief quick-changes and clear storytelling, a mighty feat for a convoluted show all about mistaken identity.

Kate Witt and R. Hamilton Wright in The Comedy of Errors
Kate Witt and R. Hamilton Wright in “The Comedy of Errors.” Photo by John Ulman

The enthusiastic cast ensured that, more than 400 years after it was written, the play’s characteristic slapstick and pun-filled humor translated well. Even through the often confusing Old English, every joke landed, and the audience was quickly coaxed into bouts of uproarious laughter and applause that only increased in intensity as the show continued. The actors captivated viewers right away, managing to enrapture audience members of all ages—even young children giggled along at the slapstick humor and were enthralled by the expertly choreographed fight scenes crafted by Ian Bond.

For such a small cast and frugal budget, the technical execution of the play itself was flawless. The smart work of costume designer Jocelyne Fowler helped the audience differentiate between characters and was the star of some of the most hilarious moments in the show, including a memorable pool noodle and lightsaber fight scene, and the appearance of a particularly flamboyant hot pink feather boa. Through collaboration with scenic designer Craig Wollam, Fowler crafted an environment that enabled the actors to do their best work.

Rico Lastrapes, MJ Daly and Kelly Karcher in "The Comedy of Errors."
Rico Lastrapes, MJ Daly and Kelly Karcher in “The Comedy of Errors.” Photo by John Ulman

As a play, The Comedy of Errors is often criticized for not being particularly substantive. And while the script itself may have more slapstick humor than thematic depth, the Seattle Shakespeare Company created their own meaning out of this performance. Above all else, The Comedy of Errors is a story about disconnection, but it ends with a dysfunctional family reunion and a strong feeling of togetherness, in spite of the years of grief and pain that came before. Perhaps this production was the Seattle Shakespeare Company’s way of giving their audience a chance to experience this feeling of togetherness along with the characters; after a painful and tragic time apart, this production was the perfect way to bring a community together again. By bringing back the beloved local tradition of Wooden O with such a spectacular production, the Seattle Shakespeare Company has succeeded in reinvigorating and reuniting their audience after a year and a half apart.

The Comedy of Errors is now playing through August 8 at parks throughout Puget Sound. Performances are free.

Lily Williamson is a third-year student at the University of Washington, where she is the managing editor of the undergraduate history journal and Director of the Queer Student Commission. She has just finished her third year as a member of TeenTix’s Teen Editorial Staff, where she writes and edits articles for the TeenTix blog. Lily is passionate about arts accessibility and art that highlights intersectionality, and she hopes to use her writing to foster greater youth involvement in the Seattle art world.

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.