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Wash. Co. Native Comes to Town in ‘Mamma Mia!’

May 8, 2012
By PHYLLIS R. SIGAL - Design Editor , The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

It was in the throes of "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" that Michelle Weissgerber realized she was hooked on theater.

"This is what I want to do forever and ever," she thought during that high school production at Ringgold High in Monongahela, Pa., located just about 15 miles east of Washington, Pa.

And now, a little more than a decade later, she's in the throes of an amazing dream.

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"It's a dream come true to play the roles I've always wanted to play and in a show I've always wanted to be in."

That show is "Mamma Mia!," which comes to the Capitol Theatre for two performances this week, at 7:30 p.m. on Monday and Tuesday.

In ""Mamma Mia!," Weissgerber performs in the ensemble and understudies Donna and Tanya, two of the leading ladies.

As a kid in Finleyville, Pa., she did a lot of community and school theater and sang at her church. Singing from the time she was 3 years old, she remembers, she loved Judy Garland. "I watched 'The Wizard of Oz' a million times."

Her first play was in elementary school, she said, "But I don't think I knew what acting was until eighth grade - that it could be a career." She did a Disney concert, where she was a Disney princess, and "I fell in love with singing. I got the bug."

But when she got to college, she gravitated to the acting side of theater.

"I did a lot of straight plays and improv. There's a big difference between musicals and straight plays," she said, and noted that dancing is not her "strong suit."

A graduate of Point Park University, she has lived in Chicago for the past eight years. There she has amassed a resume of film and television, commercial and theater credits. She's performed at Metropolis, Circle Theater, TheaterBAM and has done improv at Second City.

It was about a year ago she auditioned for "Mamma Mia!" She thought it was a good audition, but didn't hear anything - until December. She was planning a wedding, had just bought a townhouse with her fiance, and got word they wanted her to tour in the show. "What a great Christmas present!" she said, admitting it was all a bit overwhelming.

Her indoctrination into her first national tour has been rigorous, having to learn her parts in the show along with the two lead roles.

"In March, I finally got a normal tour schedule, not having to rehearse all day and perform all night," she said.

Still not "100 percent" used to the touring life, she has to work hard at staying healthy. "You have to take care of your body - it's a full-time job."

Weissgerber said she sings on almost every song in the show, some onstage and many backstage.

She has had the opportunity to perform in the lead roles about 14 times as Donna and twice as Tanya, one of Donna's best friends.

"It's been a dream. One minute I'm playing a small house of 800, and the next, I'm the lead in a national tour for 1,000 people."

As an understudy, she said she watches Tanya and Donna from offstage about three times a week. "I go over the show once or twice a week in my hotel room."

Last weekend she took on the role of Donna two times, "and I messed up the lyrics."

"But it's a matter of doing it over and over ... and knowing the other actors on stage have got your back."

Having family on the east coast, in the Pittsburgh area and in Maryland, where she was born, she'd love to get to step into one of the lead roles while in this neck of the woods. Lots of family members are coming to see her at the Capitol Theatre, and a former middle school teacher is bringing a class of students from Finley (Pa.) Middle School.

While she plans to return to her theater town of Chicago when the tour ends in August, she is enjoying being a part of "Mamma Mia!"

"I've never been a part of a show that's sold out every single night, with 800 to 4,000 people smashed in a room. The energy you get from that is amazing. People love ABBA. At the end of the show, everyone is dancing in aisles. ... It's a good time. You are not going to be bored at 'Mamma Mia!'"

The show deals with "woman power," she said. "I love the message it sends to young women. So many in the 19-24 age range think they went to college, now I have to get married. It's so young. Go out and accomplish something first. Live some life!"

And there also is a message for older women, as well, she said. "Just because you're old doesn't mean you can't find a man, can't be a rock star and can't have fun!"

Although, by no means "old," the self-described "5-foot-8 brassy broad" said she's "enjoying being in my 30s right now." In her 20s, all the parts were for the "sweet, cute, short ingenue. I'm not that. I'm Christine Baranski, always towering over my leading men. ...

"I couldn't ask for anything more ... since I turned 30, all kinds of good things have happened."

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