It's A Family Affair When MAMMA MIA! Opens At Hackmatack
As if "Mamma Mia!" isn't schmaltzy enough to begin with, the Hackmatack Playhouse production of this Broadway mega-hit serves up its own dose of sentimentality, with two talented mother-child teams fueling the tender and nostalgic production in Berwick.
First there is Kelli Leigh-Ann Connors of Lebanon, Maine, directing her son and daughter in the show three decades after she first auditioned to act in a play at Hackmatack. Shaughnessey, 21, plays the lead role of Sophie, and Griffinn, 17, plays "Pepper" in "Mamma Mia!," which opens Wednesday, July 24 at the Berwick theater.
Then there is the additional mother-daughter team of Heather Glenn Wixson, who plays the lead role of the mother, Donna, and her daughter, Jemma, who is cast in the ABBA band. For Heather, being in this show with her daughter has huge significance.
"'Mamma Mia!' for me was the thing that brought music back to my life," Glenn Wixson said, recalling her time of grief after her mother died. Her family went to see the sing-a-long film version of "Mamma Mia!" one Saturday during that period and singing along with this show helped lift her out of the darkness. And so she returned again to see it the very next day and several more times over the next year.
"From this point, it was my dream to play Donna," Glenn Wixson said, "and I spent two months preparing for the audition." It is not the first time she and Jemma have been in a show together, but it is perhaps the most meaningful time.
"We love this show, it's special to us," agreed Jemma.
The biggest production of Hackmatack's season, "Mamma Mia! features the music of ABBA and tells the story of a young woman's search for her birth father. Set on a Greek island, a bride-to-be wants to find her father so he can walk her down the aisle and she brings three contenders onto the island. The audience is encouraged to join in singing along to songs like "Take a Chance on Me," Knowing Me, Knowing You," "Dancing Queen" and, of course, "Mamma Mia!"
This tale of love and family was made available to general theaters only in the last few years and as soon as it became available, Hackmatack was ready to put it on the schedule. Connors is both choreographer and director for this high-energy show, which has a heavy dose of dancing and of course, singing.
Connor's son Griffinn, a rising high school senior, was called in at the last minute when another actor had to back out and he is also playing "Peter" in the upcoming production of "Peter and the Star Catcher."
For Michael Guptill, who took over the Berwick theater in 1995 from his father, Carleton, watching the Connors and her two children is like looking back on his own early days acting at the theater.
"When I look at Kelli rehearsing with her two children it makes me feel like I'm watching my family when my brother and sister and I were doing shows and my father ran the place," Guptill said.
Part of the appeal for actors is the way they become enfolded into the Guptill clan, as well as into the beauty of the theater at a 400-year-old family farm.
Connors, who returned to Hackmatack a few years ago after an 18-year hiatus to raise children, acknowledges that she keeps coming back in large part because of the connections she has built that make her feel part of the Guptill's extended theater family.
"It's one of the reasons why I'm here. I still feel Carlton here," she said. "I still feel a connection to the family. One of the things I say to new actors is, 'It's in a barn, it's hot and it's a lot of work, but it's so satisfying because you walk on the property and it's immediately like coming home."
"Mamma Mia!" runs July 24 to Aug 10 with shows 8 pm Wed. to Sat. and 2 pm on Thursdays July 25, Aug. 1 and Aug. 8. For more information, go to www.hackmatack.org or call 207-698-1807.