Lily Walden, playing Sophie, talks with Nicolas Murch, as Sky, during a rehearsal of "Mamma Mia" at Eastern Mennonite University on Friday. (Photo by Daniel Lin)

DN-R: Local high schoolers take a chance with ‘Mamma Mia’ in EMU’s new summer musical theater program

Exploding with tension Thursday onstage at Eastern Mennonite University’s Mainstage Theater — it could be hard to believe local high schoolers Eleanor Albers and Mac Rhodes-Miller have only been rehearsing together for a few days.

EMU’s Summer Musical Theater Program features performance and technical intensives for students grades four through 12, offering local students a new opportunity to perform a full-scale production over the summer.

With just over two weeks to rehearse as a full cast and crew, the heat is on for 18 local high schoolers who will present the musical “Mamma Mia,” with music by Benny Anderson and Björn Ulvaeus with Stig Anderson and book by Catherine Johnson. The musical will be performed July 14-16 at 7 p.m. in the University Commons Mainstage Theater.

This is the first time EMU’s theater program has produced a show like this, challenging high schoolers with “college-level” work, said Justin Poole, head of the theater department at EMU, and then putting on a show for a real audience.

Working eight hours each day, the high schoolers rehearse scenes, practice choreography, vocals and scene changes — repeating scenes multiple times to get them exactly right.

“I’ve learned a lot about actions and how they impact how characters interact with each other,” said Rhodes-Lehman, a rising sophomore at Eastern Mennonite High School. He plays Sam, a man who’s trying to win back his former lover’s heart.

The high schoolers are learning skills that run the gamut of musical theater and technical theater from co-directors Poole and Ellie de Waal, who’s also resident choreographer for EMU’s theater program and choreographer for the show. Also contributing are music directors Jim Clemens and Angie Clemens and EMU theater students, who serve as student directors and mentors to the high schoolers.

“Doing this program is a huge step for me,” said Anna Hoover, a rising senior chemistry major and theater minor at EMU, who’s serving as a student director. “Getting to know the ins and outs of theater outside of [acting]. Being able to step back and see the outside is awesome.”

Even though they are only rehearsing as a group for a short time, the students began auditioning for the program back in February, and had their lines memorized before the start of the program.

Ramping up the drama, attitude and energy with each run, the high schoolers in the program said they’ve learned a bit about how to “own” their characters.

From the student directing-mentors, Albers said she learned something about memorizing lines.

“I did a Zoom call with [EMU student director Greta Schrag] a few days before we started the program,” said Albers, a rising junior at Eastern Mennonite High School who plays Donna, the free-spirited mother of the bride. “I was still struggling to get my lines learned, and she suggested I do [online] flashcards. And then I had my lines by the end of the day.”

The program provides a needed opportunity for local high schoolers who love theater to keep performing over the summer, said student director Joseph Sites, a recent graduate of EMU and alumnus of EMHS.

“This isn’t something that has really existed in this area that exists in other areas,” Sites said. “It’s just filling a niche in the theater community around here, because there’s a lot of very talented people doing theater in high schools, so we’re giving them more opportunities when they’re not in school.”

Tickets for the show can be purchased by calling 540-432-4582 or by visiting EMU runs a separate junior program for fourth- through eight-graders, which takes place in July and leads up to a musical revue.

“They came to our school and they were talking about doing ‘Mamma Mia,’” Albers said. “I really like ‘Mamma Mia,’ and I’ll take any chance to do theater, so I think it’s a really fun way to spend my summer.”

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