Review: Land O Lakes High School Presents MAMMA MIA! at the Wesley Chapel Performing Arts Center

Ends Saturday, February 17th!

By: Feb. 17, 2024
Review: Land O Lakes High School Presents MAMMA MIA! at the Wesley Chapel Performing Arts Center
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“Mamma Mia, here I go again/My my, how can I resist you?” --Abba, “Mamma Mia”

“You can dance, you can jive/Having the time of your life.” --Abba, “Dancing Queen”

“It’s the end of the world.”  --My brother in 1977 after hearing that Abba’s “Dancing Queen” hit #1 on the American Top-40

Believe it or not, MAMMA MIA!, the jukebox musical fueled by Abba hits (and some misses), is one of the most important musicals of all time.  Balk if you will at such a notion, but when you put together the important moments in musical theatre history, MAMMA MIA! matters.  Starting with the Golden Age of Musicals,  with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s groundbreaking Oklahoma!, you would have to include shows like West Side Story, Cabaret, Hair, Company, A Chorus Line, and obviously Hamilton.  And yes, for good or bad, MAMMA MIA! belongs on the list along with that lofty lot.

Although it certainly isn’t the first jukebox musical, MAMMA MIA! ushered in the era of the jukebox musical as we know it, where an artist or group’s song list could be put together to tell a story.  Some did it with a mere biography (a la Jersey Boys and Beautiful: The Carole King Musical), while others followed MAMMA MIA’S lead to tell a totally different story using various, previously written hit songs.  So, much to my brother's chagrin (see the quote at the top of the article), every jukebox musical since must bow down to the bopping behemoth called MAMMA MIA!    

But there’s more to this jukebox musical than meets the eye.  The storyline also showcases an important clash between generations, the free-flowing hippy-dippy lifestyle of the 1960s and 1970s (the Boomers where, in this case, there’s an unmarried mother who, in  1979, had slept with three men, any one of whom could be her daughter’s daddy) versus the more grounded world of modern youth (the pesky Millennials who seem to make the opposite choices of their parents).  This is where watching a high school version of the show becomes quite interesting.  The teenagers pretty much look the same age, so do we buy this generational divide? Our imaginations add the necessary suspension of disblief in this department, but it is a stretch. 

MAMMA MIA! centers around a paradisiacal Greek island wedding between twenty-year-old Sophie (Jade Ethier) and Sky (Jaxon Wallace).  Sophie never knew who her father was until she reads the diary of her mother, Donna (Gabriela Hernandez), and finds out that chances are her father is one of three of Donna’s lovers from two decades earlier. Sophie invites them to the ceremony.  The three men (played by Harrison Patruno, Jake Despenas and AJ Martin) arrive, as do Donna’s saucy gal pals (played by Katie Young and Sofia Acosta),  who bring about an informal reunion of their former girl group, Donna & the Dynamos.  Much Abba-esque fun ensues.  And that’s about it for the plot.    

Make no mistake, the show is in-your-face shallow and about the breeziest musical to ever exist.   But people aren’t seeing MAMMA MIA! for any depth it may contain  They’re seeing it to celebrate the songs of Abba in a fun storyline (and in this case, to watch these amazing youths bring it all to life).  So don’t expect it to cure the common cold, and no, it won’t bring about world peace.  Even though it’s way too long for such a frolic  of a show (it runs about two hours and forty-five minutes, which is almost as long as Les Miserables, a mega-musical that spans seventeen years!), you can’t help yourself but to bop your head and tap your toes to the words and music of Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, Abba’s brainchildren.  The musical’s book is by British playwright Catherine Johnson. 

Watching the performance by the talented LOLHS cast at the Wesley Chapel Performing Arts Center (a packed house), I worried that everyone around me in the audience would insufferably start crooning along with the various Abba lyrics performed by the actors: “…take a chance, take a chance…knowing me, knowing you, aha….money, money, money…”  Such incidences, when they happen, become  nightmares to a reviewer because now I have to review the audience’s (usually off-key) singing as well (never a good thing, not even with the goofy glories of Abba).  Thankfully, the nightmare never happened.  A much-needed announcement early-on put my mind to rest: “Leave the singing to the actors on the stage.” Whew! After wards I overheard an audience member say, “If they didn’t have that announcement, I would have been singing along with them all night!”  That was a narrow escape.

And then the show started, and once again it validated why I adore coming to LOLHS productions: They do things right.  This is one tight show technically and it was a joy to experience from start to finish.  Yes, some of the performers seemed to grow tired in the second act (Act 1 is more splashy fun than Act 2) and, yes, there are the usual enunciation issues, rushed lines and dropped ends-of-sentences that you find with some high school performers. 

The musical itself also seems to have several unnecessary songs that pad the show’s length. (We love Donna and the Dynamos, but “Super Trooper,” well-sung as it is, doesn’t move the plot or really anything forward, and “Does Your Mother Know” is fun but seems thrown in just for the sake of including the iconic song.)  Act 2 also has a built-in sameness to it…duets, followed by a needless big number, followed by more duets, followed by another big number, and so on.  And there were times when I thought that this was a typical high school production (not that there’s anything wrong with that), and others that transcend high school and shoot this production into the stratosphere.  So many good things, so much joy and goodwill from the wondrous cast and crew. These kids deserve to be proud; their hard work and dedication paid off…and then some.

And did I mention that there are standout performances in this that I will not soon forget?

Jade Ethier carries the entire production with such naturalness rarely found in someone so young.  As Sophie, she makes us understand her plight.  And her vocals are off the charts.  This is a young performer who can do anything she wants in the theatre, if that’s her desire.  She has it all--strong talent, poise, a dynamic singing voice, and lots of heart.  She proved to be the standout among standouts, the performance you rave about long after the final curtain.

And Jake Despenas is a force as the dandy fop, Harry, one of Donna’s past suitors.  Mr. Despenas is always in character, and he has unbelievable stage presence.  I smile a lot in shows, but rarely do I laugh out loud.  But when Mr. Despenas head-bangs during “Gimmie, Gimmie, Gimmie,” and he starts whipping his long hair as if auditioning for Flashdance, I broke out with the loudest guffaw.   

Gabriela Hernandez is stoic and quite grounded as Donna, and this makes her appear more appropriately mature. She’s another major talent and  can boast a splendid singing voice, but she stands so straight and tall when she sings that sometimes I felt like I was at a recital and not watching a character.  But she comes into her own in Act 2, with an amazing rendition of “Slipping Through My Fingers,” a fine duet with Ms. Ethier’s Sophie, and, especially, “The Winner Takes It All.”  (My only qualm with “The Winner Takes It All” number has nothing to do with Ms. Hernandez’s sterling rendition of it.  My issue is its staging.  During this song, the “action” is suddenly and glaringly moved to the front of the main curtain for the only time in the show; this was obviously accomplished so that the crew could set up the wedding festivities for the next scene without stopping the show’s flow.  But it takes us out of the setting, and the two actors  on the apron couldn’t do much but just sort of stand there in the spotlight with nowhere to go.  But Ms. Hernandez is so good, and she sells the song so well, that the audience rightfully rewarded  her with a sustained ovation.  Still, how much stronger would it have been if it had been staged on the Greek island instead of some never-never world that’s boringly spotlit in front of a curtain? It’s a big song that, to me, deserved better.)

Katie Young is a hoot as Tanya, and Sofia Acosta is so incredibly spirited, a blast, as the prowling Rosie; the stage jolts with energy whenever these two are on it. Harrison Patruno is sort of the Everyman in this production, the regular guy, the anchor; he has a terrific singing voice (so much better than Pierce Brosnan in the movie) and reacts as well as anyone to the zaniness around him.  And newcomer Andrew Martin is a welcome find as Bill.

Jaxon Wallace comes across as quite young but he holds his own as Sophie’s beau, Sky.  Elayna Blecher and Savannah Wardell lend proper support as Ali and Lisa; they’re so much fun to watch during “Honey, Honey.”   Porter Booth's Eddie and Julian Leong’s Pepper make for a fun pair.    Mr. Leong is proudly over the top, sometimes too much; he unabashedly mugs, gyrates, performs The Worm in a heartbeat, and obviously only thinks naughty thoughts.  (A highlight of the show is when Pepper, Eddie and other male characters storm the stage in wet suits during the song “Lay All Your Love on Me.”)

Anyone who knows me understands that I am an Ensemble Cheerleader, meaning that I am in the firm belief that the ensemble is as important, if not more so, than the leading players.  And the show’s director, Sabrina Hydes, obviously falls into this category as well.  I adored watching the ensemble at work here, always in character, always working together, adding so much to the scenes and the vocals.  The show would not work without them: Alex Clement, Nalani Bisono, Adaly Friedman, Emilee Allen, Karina Flores, Mae Logan, Lola Fredericks, Nicole Collada, Maddie Sullivan, Rosie Vega, Jinx Lopes, Laney Sprinkle, Aislyn Morris, Deniela Segovia, Ethan Pumarejo and Jayden Hydes (making his stage debut).  Lillibeth Skogland and Geneviene Skogland portray the adorable flower girls.

Jordyn Ester is certainly a standout ensemble member, but my choice for the tops in this entire ensemble is the radiant Maleena Patel.  Here is a young performer who bursts with life onstage, tackling each dance move with vim and vigor (not to mention her Act 2 gymnastics).  She sparkles, dazzles. She is proof that you don’t have to be the star or have any individual speaking lines to make an impact on the audience.  She’s like one light brighter, one step ahead.   

Another thing I appreciate with the productions of Ms. Hydes is that the tech crew get the correct recognition, usually with the final bow during curtain call.  With MAMMA MIA!, the fabulous set, perfectly timed pre-recorded music and sound in general, vibrant and creative costumes, and strong lighting, come together  stupendously.  It’s a nicely taut show, thanks to the Tech Goddesses and Gods. Led by an amazing Stage Manager, Madeliene Smith, and her Assistant Stage Managers, Savannah Van Ost and Savannah Pickering, you have Amelia Smith (Publicity); Ceci Dominguez (Lighting Chief); Campbell Mcelaney (Props Master); Kylea Brown and Maya Rivas (Costume Chiefs); Delainey Moore (House Manager); Kaitlym Henry and Tyson Bansetter (Lighting Techs); Emily Sumner (Audio); Mallory Scanlan, Ricky Dominguez and Emma-Rose Oraiqat (Props); Emma VanHook, Addison Gehle and Elora Gager (Costume Crew); Delilah Storr, Analeigh Aponte, Glnnely Vega, Kayla Beams, Haley Castens and Brady Finch (Stagehands).  Stellar work from all. 

Emma Campbell's choreography is oftentimes inspired, and Renee Palma gets beautiful harmonies from the talented young cast.  But none of this would be possible without the force that is known as Ms. Sabrina Hydes.  She is more than just a visionary director and more than just a marvelous LOLHS teacher; she’s a magician of sorts.  And she has magically and lovingly brought out the best in these youthful performers, many of whom are having life-changing experiences from being in this show and, to partially quote “Dancing Queen,” having the time of their lives in the process.  Their joy is infectious.

After the Friday night performance, I ran into a former student of mine who doesn’t attend LOLHS and doesn’t know anyone in the cast.  He came to see the show on a whim.  “What’d you think?” I asked him.

“I loved it,” he said with a mighty grin.  “I loved it so much I’m thinking of seeing it again tomorrow night!”  I’m sure most of the audience members would agree.

Land O Lakes High School’s production of MAMMA MIA!, performed at the Wesley Chapel Performing Arts Center, ends its run Saturday night (February 17) at 7:00 PM.

Photo Courtesy of Sabrina Hydes.