Michelle Dawson: The Gift that Keeps on Giving
August 15, 2017
For Michelle Dawson, Mamma Mia! has been the gift that keeps on giving. On Broadway she understudied two of the four female leads, “Dynamos” Donna Sheridan and Rosie; on the national tour she was both Tanya, the third “Dynamo,” and Donna, and regionally she has played Donna and Tanya. Now she’s just finished playing Tanya in the Pittsburgh CLO’s run of Mamma Mia!, which opened Friday July 28th.
Mamma Mia! tells the story of Donna Sheridan, a single mother and hotel owner, who is preparing for her daughter’s wedding. Unbeknownst to her, her daughter Sophie has invited to the wedding three men she believes could be her father. Over the course of the show, more of Donna’s history is revealed as she confronts a past that she had tried to hide. The music is all of ABBA’s greatest hits from the title song to “Chiquitita” to “Take a Chance on Me.”
Dawson was excited to play Tanya again and to play her in the CLO’s production. In fact, the last time she was performing at the Benedum Center she was performing as Tanya in the touring production of Mamma Mia!. “Every time I do Mamma Mia! it’s good for my brain,” she laughs. “Because yes it’s the same book and the same music, but there’s different blocking, staging, a new twist, cast. You want to find new things and keep exploring. But I'm having a ball playing Tanya. She’s so fun; she loves her men; she’s sexy. She’s just so fun.”
Her director, Barry Ivan, was someone that Dawson had known for a long time. She worked with him in the past at the CLO as Petra in A Little Night Music and Betty Rizzo in Grease. “It’s been amazing working with him again,” she said about Ivan in our recent interview. “He’s a wonderful character, and his vision of Mamma Mia! keeps it real and about relationships. The last time that I did Tanya was 2008-2009. It was a long time ago, and I remember my Tanya – it does come
back – but Ivan has emphasized the relationships. This is so much about relationships and the story. That’s why it’s successful. As the audience, everyone can relate to something in it.”
“You have the shell of Mamma Mia! but every show has that unique quality. There’re so many different versions, which is the wonderful thing about this show. You can really put yourself into that character. That’s the cool thing about these roles. They come alive with what you bring it. That’s the gift that Mamma Mia! has.”
Dawson was born and raised in Vermont and even represented Vermont in the Miss America Pagent. She won an award and scholarship from the pageant for “most talented performer.” On stage, Dawson sparkles as the sexy and vivacious Tanya. Her comedic timing is perfect and her song “Does Your Mother Know” is a stand out. Her belt voice is impressive and about it she says, “When I graduated from CMU I was a legitimate soprano. Over the years I explored my belt voice because you have to keep up with the musical theatre changes. You have to do a little bit of everything to be an actor and singer.”
At Carnegie Mellon University, Dawson was a Voice Performance and Musical Theatre Voice double major. She was in the Voice Performance department and was singing mainly classical and opera. Her career, however, has been mostly in musical theatre. Her past roles include: Evelyn Nesbit in Ragtime on Broadway, Arachne/Emily/Aunt May (s/b) in Spider-man: Turn off the Dark on Broadway, and Aldonza in Man of La Mancha.
Dawson says she’s always been a student; she still studies with a voice teacher, but now she is also teaching. She started teaching about a year and a half ago and she says loves it more than she ever could have imagined. She teaches kids of all ages not only on their technical skills but also helps them on their path of discovery. “In this career,” she says, “it’s so easy to get it right for casting. You know, if I dance this way or be that way. But it’s really being who you are and being your best and exploring whatever that is. It truly is about what you have to bring.”
As a teacher, Dawson feels like she’s grown as a performer. Vocalizing and reiterating, she says, has made her a better performer. She likes helping others and working with kids. This might be because she’s a mother; she has a son, Ryan, with her husband Chris Cardona.
Though she’s a mother and wife, Dawson’s still growing as a performer and continuing her career. She says, “I have a family, a twelve year old son, two dogs, but I still have the drive and hunger that I did when I was younger. I love working, and I’m still building my career. As you get older you’re changing and moving into different roles. Musical theater has changed over the years, too, so you have to stay up on things. Also realizing in show business when first coming out of school, it’s like you get older and making choices about family and such. I want both. You can. You make these choices. You can have a career and family.”
Dawson is doing both and couldn’t be happier. When asked what’s next for her, she says, “I don’t know what’s after Mamma Mia! That’s the excitement of show business.”