When you see shows at the Merry-Go-Round Playhouse for long enough, you see some performers more than once. And you see some of those performers become audience favorites.
I'm reminded of recent performers like Geno Carr and his everyman nervous energy, or Julie Cardia and her effortless look-at-me presence. Those qualities made them formidable performers on their own, but as their names kept appearing in the playbill at the Owasco theater, the audience's familiarity with them fed their appreciation. It made them laugh louder, clap harder.
After "Mamma Mia!" opened the playhouse's 60th anniversary season Wednesday night, you can add Sally Wilfert to the list of its audience's favorites.
She should have been there already: Wilfert dazzled as Margaret in "The Light in the Piazza" in 2015 and Miss Mona in "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" last summer. Both roles are protective but vulnerable mothers with sharp wits and knockout voices, so it's no surprise the Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival looked to her to portray its Donna Sheridan.
If Wilfert's turn as the embattled Donna isn't impressive enough, it comes in the shadow of Meryl Streep, who earned a Golden Globe nod for the role in the smash 2008 movie based on the musical (as well as its July sequel). Wilfert is every bit the same force of nature when her Donna is blindsided by the sight of the three men who could be the father to her daughter, Sophie, who covertly invited them to her Greek island wedding. As she tries to feign composure, Wilfert stumbles between shock, bemusement and fury with seamless ease. Her reaction is as cartoonish as it is human.
Wilfert has help making other scenes hilarious: As Tanya and Rosie, Donna's friends and former bandmates, Nicolette Hart and Jodi Kimura rival her audience responses. The banter between Hart's man-eating divorcee and Kimura's wry author makes them sublime backup, and they're breakout hits as Hart fends off an even thirstier young bartender at Donna's villa and Kimura pursues one of Sophie's potential fathers, goofball Australian Bill Austin (Joe Gately). Geoffrey Allen Murphy has his silly moments as fellow candidate Harry Bright, but he buffs them with a winning English charm.
AUBURN — Sally Wilfert and Emily Kristen Morris had five days to become mother and daughter.
As their characters realize Sophie may be their daughter, Gately and Murphy convey their heartful investment in her future. So does Gary Milner's Sam Carmichael, the father candidate whose ugly parting from Donna makes him the frontrunner to predictive audiences. Wilfert finds chemistry with him, but it's her relationship with Emily Kristen Morris' Sophie that has the most powerful reach. Sniffles were audible among the audience as Wilfert's Donna helped her daughter into her wedding dress after they nailed every bittersweet note of standout ballad "Slipping Through My Fingers."
Festival Producing Artistic Director Brett Smock directs such scenes with a light touch that lets those emotions take hold. He also lets the ubiquitous songs of Swedish pop institution ABBA work their magic as the show's soundtrack, and music director Jeff Cox leads the orchestra through every synthesized note with punchy force. But the playhouse ensemble gets to show off its talent for splashy dance breaks, too, whirling about during "Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)" and gracefully flopping about in swimsuits and flippers during "Lay All Your Love On Me."
Wilfert may shine, but the efforts of everyone involved in "Mamma Mia!" make it the perfect start to the playhouse's 60th season.