The audience was settling in for the second act of Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta The Mikado at Springstead High School that January night in 2002, when, suddenly, they all grew still and hushed, listening in awe to a clear, soaring, strong, soprano voice as beautiful as many had ever heard — "The sun whose rays are all ablaze …"
It was coming from a wisp of a 14-year-old girl, Gabrielle Mirabella, whose ambition at the time was to become a professional opera singer. In succeeding years, she seemed headed straight to that dream, first performing at arts-heavy Marymount Manhattan College, then at the prestigious Manhattan School of Music for a degree in classical music.
"I thought I would do opera the rest of my career," she said recently in a telephone interview from Jacksonville. "They say pick (something) and stay with it."
But a funny thing happened on the way to the opera house. Gabrielle Mirabella fell in love — with big, bright, boisterous Broadway musical theater.
Now 25, the Hudson native is one of the leads in the international Broadway Touring Production of ABBA's Mamma Mia!, coming Friday and Saturday to Ruth Eckerd Hall.
"I am still reeling about this," Mirabella said. "Musical comedy is my dream." And Mamma Mia! is a family favorite, in fact, her mother Regina's very favorite. "We went every time it came into town. When we went to New York, we listened to it on the way" and went to the see the show again.
She plays Tanya, the middle-aged, thrice-divorced friend of the title character, Donna, belting out ABBA's Waterloo, Dancing Queen and Mamma Mia.
"(Tanya) is a bit older than I am, in her later 30s," Mirabella acknowledges. "It's a good thing for me that I appear much older on stage — 10 years older."
It all started when she was a drama student at River Ridge High School, first under Tim and Lori Erickson, then under Broadway veteran Diana Rogers. She also played Richey Suncoast Theatre, in 2002 doing the character Liesl in The Sound of Music, opposite Justin Matthew Sargent's Rolf. Sargent now has the title role on Broadway in Spider-Man, Turn Off the Dark.
Her first professional gig was at the Show Palace Dinner Theatre in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in 2001. The lead was Floral City native Kissy Simmons, who has played Nala in the Broadway production of The Lion King since 2003. Her director was John Leggio, who played Broadway in Cats and My Fair Lady. And she was childhood pals and fellow dance student under Chelle St. Pierre Fontane with Teddy Toye, who played Broadway in Bring It On: the Musical and originated the role of Harold in Broadway's Lysistrata Jones.
"It's great to know they use Florida kids, and Florida kids can make it," Mirabella said. "My favorite thing is coming out of a show (hearing) kids say, 'I'm a dancer,' " she said. "I remember the excitement I felt when I was a kid like that. It's so cool to be on this side."
The hectic Mamma Mia! road tour isn't an altogether new experience for Mirabella. From September 2012 through March of this year, she toured the country in the two-person comedy, You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up, the tale of a late-30s married couple looking at their relationship after 13 years together.
"It was a really helpful experience for me — comedy, no music, just two of us talking back and forth," she said. There were long, sometimes exhausting drives between shows in Florida, Ohio, Massachusetts and points in between, she said.
"I am getting used to bus travel, one-nighters, pack up and do it again," she said of her current show.
"Classical training is the best," she says. "It's all about keeping your voice healthy, keeping your body healthy. Maintenance is the key." If she becomes exhausted, she heads for the gym for a workout. If she has an ache, pain or injury, she keeps going.
One of the most serious ailments happened when she was playing the pushy mother Velma in Hairspray at the Show Palace in January 2012. The day before opening night, she fell and sprained her ankle. She went on anyway, crutches and all.
"My doctor wasn't happy about it, but the show must go on," she said. "You do what you gotta do. And I can't wait to do that show again."
Eventually, Mirabella hopes to have a family — but not now. In fact, she said she's "not too much a 'thinker ahead,' " that "the best strategy is to not have a strategy."
"I love the touring lifestyle," she said. Home "is where my stuff is," whether it's the tour bus, a hotel room or back in Hudson with her parents, Regina and Paul, and brothers, Matthew and Paul Jr., while she performs at the Show Palace.
"It's always exciting to do something new."