OGLESBY — When the curtain goes up Thursday, April 18, on the Illinois Valley Community College Theatre Department’s production of “Mamma Mia!,” audiences know to expect high-voltage dancing and also that the story is, ultimately, all about family, set to the 1980s songbook of ABBA.
Family is a familiar theme within IVCC’s artistic team as well. Lexi Zellmer of Peoria commutes to rehearsals and serves as assistant choreographer to director, choreographer and father, Don Grant Zellmer.
“We joke that our choreography styles are identical and that we steal each other’s ideas, but we really just have the same visions,” said Lexi.
Don added, “It’s almost like we share a brain when it comes to dances. It must be genetic! We call it ‘Daddy-Daughterography.”
“Mamma Mia!” cast member and dancer, Ashley Hurst of Peru, said, “It’s very cool to see these two work together. Don will choreograph a dance, turn to Lexi to see how she likes it, and vice versa. They never disagree – just add to each other’s numbers.” She added, “Even their direction style is the same – definite and professional, but they both make the rehearsal process fun and rewarding for the cast.”
The two acknowledge that the cast has been dedicated. “This cast is so great to work with – talented and they save the drama for the stage. You can’t ask for a more genuine and hard-working group just doing what they love,” said Lexi.
During one rehearsal, Don was teaching the “Gimme Gimme Gimme” number and wasn’t satisfied with the last part of his choreography. He would be gone the next rehearsal, so he turned to his daughter to see what she could do with it in his absence. “When I came back and saw it,” he said, “I couldn’t really tell where my choreography ended and Lexi’s began.”
Zellmer owned and operated Zellmer’s Dinner Theatre near Peoria for many years, starting when Lexi was a baby. He performed professionally for many years after he closed that operation, and Lexi grew up watching her parents perform.
“Growing up with dad as a director and actor made for a unique and exciting childhood,” she said. “I’ve always admired his abilities to orchestrate a cast of people from all different talent levels and experiences. Now as a choreographer and dance coach myself, I appreciate even more his innate talents.”
Lexi has had extensive dance training, and when she was younger, danced competitively. She would share the stage on occasion with her dad at the dinner theatre, taking a role when a child was needed.
“Even when she was little and made a cameo or had a small part, she’d inform me I had to pay her like the rest of the cast,” said Zellmer. “I really thought she may grow up to be an agent at one point!”
“It is not only an honor to work with dad but a responsibility,” Lexi added. “Daughters always want to make their fathers proud and it hasn’t changed for me after 32 years. “
“That’s not an issue,” said Don. “She has made me a proud dad for so long. But it’s been a very long while since we’ve worked on a show together, so I really cherish this experience.”
While the commute can be tiring, this show has an added challenge for Lexi – she will become a first-time mother in just two months. “And yet,” said Don, “She’s dancing away like she always does.” He jokingly added, “Technically there are two and a half generations working on “Mamma Mia!”
Being a new mother won’t be slowing her down, however, as she is contracted to direct and choreograph East Peoria’s Eastlight Theatre production of “Mamma Mia!” with auditions in July. “Here we go again,” laughed Don. “Another little Zellmer growing up backstage!”
“Mamma Mia!” plays on the IVCC stage April 18-28. Tickets are available online at www.ivcc.edu.