Mamma Mia! Hollidaysburg woman lands dream role in national Broadway tour

Betsy Padamonsky hadn’t learned to read yet when she memorized her lines for her first play, the musical “Annie,” with the Altoona Community Theatre. She went on to perform more times than she can remember on the Mishler Theatre stage, as well as at her Hollidaysburg schools.

That nurturing she received early propelled her to a career that most recently landed her the dream role as the single mother, Donna, in the national farewell tour of the hit Broadway musical “Mamma Mia!”

“People talk about breakthrough roles; this is my breakthrough role,” Padamonsky said last week from Syracuse, N.Y., where the show was playing for two nights. “When they called and offered me the role, it was a dream. … It all happened so fast. I was shocked. They said, ‘Can you be in New York for rehearsals in a month?'”

She could, and she helped kick off the current tour that began last fall and criss-crosses the country through its scheduled end in July. It could be the last chance to see the musical featuring the music that the Swedish pop group Abba made famous; “Mamma Mia!” closed on Broadway in 2015 after a 14-year run.

The tour was in Baltimore this weekend (Shows at the Hippo-drome are scheduled for 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. today). And friends and family were expected to attend, including a bus-load chartered by ACT on Saturday.

“We’re very excited,” ACT operations manager Steve Helsel said last week. “Betsy grew up here at Altoona Community Theatre. She was 4 years old in our production of ‘Annie,’ and she couldn’t even read. We had to go through the lines with her.

“She’s just a great person, and we’re really excited for her.”

Her parents, Bill and Emily Padamonsky, who are retired from the Hollidaysburg Area School District, are, too.

“She’s worked hard to get where she’s at,” said her father. “We’re very proud and excited.”

Even before the “Annie” gig, Bill recalls Betsy and the family of four kids participating in a community group that traveled to different churches and schools performing a spoof play on nuclear war called “Alice in Blunderland.” The family became friends with ACT members, and Betsy was hooked.

“They really nurtured my love of performing at a young age,” she said of ACT. “I did so much theater there. Steve Helsel has been super supportive. … He’s been a family friend forever.”

She also performed at the theater now called Cresson Lake Playhouse near Loretto, and her Longer Elementary School had an enthusiastic drama teacher that encouraged her.

Betsy also performed regularly at home in the Penn Farms neighborhood where her parents still live — particularly after she acquired her first compact disc. The irony of that first CD acquisition is not lost on her: “Abba Gold Greatest Hits.”

“I would do (Abba) shows in my basement, get my cousins to come down and dress up with me,” she recalled. “My parents would be there and I’d make my brothers watch.”

Later, as an adult, Betsy wondered if that role of singing Abba songs would be the one she landed.

When she did, she said, “it was so funny. My brother was like, ‘Don’t be nervous. You have been doing this since we were kids in the basement. You got this.'”

Throughout her days at Hollidaysburg Area Senior High School, she took singing lessons and participated in every opportunity to perform.

“We had really good programs in high school, a great theater department that always encouraged us to better ourselves,”    she said. Now-retired drama teacher “Russell Stiles was amazing, along with all my music teachers and chorale teachers. Hollidaysburg has a huge music program that was super nurturing.”

After she graduated in 2000, Betsy went to Point Park University in Pittsburgh and earned her bachelor’s of fine arts degree. She remained in the Steel City for a time, taking advantage of regional theater opportunities, including narrator in “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” with Pittsburgh Musical Theater.

After a brief stint at auditions in New York City, she joined Norwegian Cruise Line as a principal singer for its shows.

“I was only going to stay a year, then go back to New York and start working,” Betsy said. “The second month I was there, I met my husband who worked for Norwegian. … We decided to travel the world. I paid off college loans and I got to perform. We were lucky.”

They spent summers in Alaska and went on “dream-like” tours of the Caribbean and Mexico. They sailed through the Panama Canal and took four or five trans-Atlantic journeys and jaunts all over Europe and the Mediterranean.

“We think we’ve been truly so fortunate to have done the things we’ve done and to be able to have done them together,” she said of her husband, Ian Harvey.

Meanwhile, her credits grew to include the musicals “Nine,” “The Civil War” and “Godspell.”

After 7 1/2 years with the cruise line, Betsy decided to try her land-legs, auditioning for several musicals. Then she got the call of her dreams last year and headed for three weeks of rehearsals in New York, followed by another week in Texas where the show opened in Houston in September.

Did she study the performances of other actresses playing the part, including Meryl Streep’s performance in the film by the same name?

“I try not to do that,” she said. “The directors are amazing and are a complete privilege to work with. They let you create the role for yourself, and they encourage us not to watch others’ roles. They want to see what freshness we can bring to it because it’s hard to replicate someone else’s performance.

“It’s great to have that freedom to not be in a box.”

Her solo favorites are “One of Us” and “SOS,” but she said that on the cast finale of “Dancing Queen,” “people go crazy and I love it.”

A side benefit, she said, has been traveling the country and Canada, “all these places I would never go to on my own.” The only drawback is that her “very supportive” husband remains in their Tampa, Fla., home, despite making sure they see each other at least once a month while she is on tour.

Betsy considers it an honor and a responsibility to be a part of the farewell tour that she admits has “a sense of bittersweetness with it.”

“This is a global brand, a huge thing that has reached so many people of all ages,” she said. “You don’t want it to be over, but it’s going out on a high.”

She isn’t worried yet about plans after the tour.

“I know I need to be proactive, but we’re working with the original Broadway creatives that had a hand in this show from the beginning and they’ve said, ‘Betsy, don’t get caught up with what’s happening afterwards.’ So, for the moment, I’m trying to ride this high.”

To those youngsters working the Mishler stage today with dreams of Broadway, Betsy has some advice.

“Go for it. We only live once,” she said. “It’s easy to think, ‘I have to pay my bills … The world’s going to crumble if I don’t.’ Well, the sun is still going to rise and set whether you choose to make yourself happy and bring joy to other people.

“Don’t settle for anything less than you feel you deserve: complete happiness and joy.”

Mirror Staff Writer Cherie Hicks is at 949-7030.