MANCHESTER, NH — There is undisputed magic when the curtain rises opening night at Palace Theatre. But opening night magic only happens after weeks of long days and longer nights, run-throughs, staging, fine-tuning and rehearsing. On Tuesday night 62 supporting members of the Palace got a sneak peek of the show during a tech rehearsal for “Mamma Mia,” a jukebox musical based on hit tunes of the pop-group ABBA that opens a five-week run on Feb. 28.
This rehearsal was a no-frills zone. No stage lights. No costumes. No wigs. Just talent in motion.
Oh, and for the first time on the Palace stage, a 5,000-pound 30-by-20-foot high-res video backdrop creating a splashy beachscape for the production, set on a fictional Greek isle. Palace President and CEO Peter Ramsey told the group before entering the theater that the video screen rental, from Gateway Productions, is a state-of-the-art game-changer for modern theater, and the Palace will be maximizing use of it over the next four months. It took two days to assemble on stage, a patchwork of 264 individual panels that creates an additional “wow” factor.
But then Act 2 begins and as a dozen actors emerge from the wings, an archway prop descends to the strains of ABBA’s “Under Attack” rising from the pit. This is the “wow” audience members came for in droves last time “Mamma Mia” landed at the Palace to sold-out crowds. Ramsey is hoping for another sell-out, with 7,000 tickets already spoken for.
After the number, Palace Artistic Director Carl Rajotte and choreographer Sebastian Goldberg join the actors on stage with notes before skipping ahead to the next number, “Does Your Mother Know,” featuring Tanya (Merrill Peiffer) and Pepper (Sam Harvey) framed by some acrobatics from a b-boy ensemble.
Palace Development Coordinator Sarah Souter said the members-only sneak previews are popular.
“We try to cap it at 50, but tonight we have 62 members here,” Souter says. “We had to turn people away.”
Among those who attended Tuesday’s preview were Liz and Michael Costello. Their son Timmy, 17, has been performing in Palace productions since he was 8.
“It all started with summer camp,” said his dad. Now he’s auditioning for college admissions.
“We love seeing a work in progress,” said Liz Costello. “So we’ll come out for something like this and then go to opening night and then again near the end of a show’s run, to see its evolution.”
The hour-long preview ends with a question-and-answer session with Rajotte and Ramsey. Someone asks if the huge video screen affects acoustics in the theatre. Rajotte says no; it’s designed in such a way that it doesn’t interfere with the sound.
He then discusses how the stage crew has merged elements of the original set, including an elaborate wooden dock, with the video screen. Last time around they used a ‘swirly backdrop” with some projection to recreate the ocean, but it’s hard to beat the clarity of the giant video screen.
“You’re not going to want to give it back,” says one audience member. And while that may be true, Ramsey points out that the $800,000 price tag means the Palace will make the most of it until the rental period runs out.
When asked what the biggest challenge of this particular production is, Rajotte smiles broadly.
“Because it was so successful last time, it has to be as good or better. That’s the challenge — and it has to be better,” Rajotte said. With opening night just days away, he said he’s already starting to think about designing the set for the New Hampshire debut of “The Body Guard” (April 17-May 10).
Another audience member asks which is their favorite musical number from the show.
“Of course it’s ‘Mamma Mia,'” says Ramsey, the Palace’s perpetual promoter and No. 1 fan.
“Mamma Mia” funs Feb. 28-March 29. Tickets are available online or at the Palace Box Office located at 80 Hanover St., Manchester. Click here for more information.