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‘Mamma Mia!’ heads for the Rock: School play gets ready for prime time

If the mention of the song “Mamma Mia” sets your feet tapping and a catchy tune running through your head, you’ll understand why that show was an easy choice as the Shelter Island School’s spring musical for director John Kaasik.

“It was my daughter Serena’s idea,” he said. “ABBA’s music is so well-known and loved, you can’t go wrong.”

He pointed out that it’s a great show for a school play, since it has so many roles. “It’s a really fun, ensemble-driven show,” he said. “The kids are more excited than usual.”

“Mamma Mia” debuted in 1999, showcasing the title song from 1975 and other hits by the Swedish group ABBA. With other hits like “Dancing Queen” and “Take a Chance on Me,” the production, set to run from March 30 through April 2, will surely have the audience dancing in the aisles.

But first, there are long days of rehearsal ahead and much work by the Islanders who dedicate their time and talents to the play. Collaborating with Mr. Kaasik are his wife, Anna, as producer; choreographer Laura Dickerson; drama coach Sue Cincotta; Mark Kaasik handling lights; Julia Brennan providing costumes; Peter Waldner painting sets and Paul Mobius on props.

(Courtesy image)

A lot of hard work is needed to support the performance of the young actors, but these members of the community gain satisfaction, returning year after year to lend a hand backstage. “I don’t underestimate what the adults get out of it,” Mr. Kaasik said.

It’s an intensely busy time, he acknowledged, but one that comes with “good stress.”  The months of rehearsal involve a lot of hours, and he’s the one who has to obsess over every detail.

For the students, taking part in the school drama club’s spring play provides not only a theatrical experience, but a bonding with fellow cast members that lasts long after the show ends.

Over the years, the positive atmosphere that Mr. Kaasik has engendered around the experience of working together on a show has become a well-known feature of the play process.

He will frequently single out a cast member for doing something well, and the students follow his lead. “Everyone needs that,” Mr. Kaasik said. “And they remember it and work even harder.”

Sometimes they will complain to him about schedule conflicts and he’ll urge them to prioritize the play, for the additional benefits that each student will take away from their involvement. “Years from now, you will forget the score of that game,” he tells them, “but you will always remember your experience in the play.”

He said the confidence that comes from a successful acting experience stays with a person, and is something he can recognize in others, not just his students.

He recalled meeting a person recently and being struck by a certain quality. “‘You’ve done a lot of theater, haven’t you?’” he asked the person, getting a positive response. “It’s a confidence thing,” he said.

He said he likes to see the students trust themselves more and become “more comfortable in their own skin.”

He makes sure the cast feels safe, “Able to let go” in the rehearsal space, unafraid to be judged. Cast members form a bond with each other, from having to trust a scene partner to deliver, or a dance partner to move in synch.

“They’re in it together,” he said, “they form a bond, like a family.” The emotional ride through the weeks of preparation and performances culminates in a “cry-fest,” with a mixture of exhilaration and sadness when it comes to an end.

Tickets will be on sale in the school lobby between 8:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. on school days; call 631-749-0302 for more information.