MATTHEWS – Inside the Matthews Community Center, a group of actors gather around a piano as they warm up their voices. They’re preparing for a long night of dancing, singing and running scenes until they get it just right.
The cast of “Mamma Mia,” presented by the Matthews Playhouse of the Performing Arts, has rehearsed and prepared for its opening since mid-December. If a scene, song or dance does not play out the way the show’s leaders see fit, they stop, correct it and run it again. And again. And again.
The show opens Jan. 31 and runs through Feb. 9.
“Mamma Mia” follows the story of Sophie and her mother, former “Donna and the Dynamos” pop star Donna, as Sophie prepares for her wedding on a Greek island. Unbeknownst to Donna, Sophie has invited three men to the wedding whom she believes could be her father. Meanwhile, Donna is reunited with her best friends and former backup singers. The jukebox musical score is to the music of ABBA, including the favorites, “Dancing Queen,” “Super Trouper” and “Gimme, Gimme, Gimme.”
“The women characters in this show are strong and independent, and the male characters are sensitive and compassionate,” Director Billy Ensley said. “It’s a good show and it’s a fun show. It’s also fun to watch a scene and watch it move into a song that the audience is familiar with. I want them to walk away having a song in their head and a shuffle in their feet.”
Ensley is returning to the Matthews Playhouse stage for this production. The Charlotte native has directed previous shows in Matthews and has worked professionally throughout the Charlotte region. He oversees the entire production of “Mamma Mia,” putting his vision together while staying true to the classic favorite that audiences love.
“The vision for me was that we would make the scenes and the characters very real with a real story to tell,” Ensley said. “Then, we would make the music numbers have a pop to them so that it’s a party atmosphere and a fun atmosphere for the audience.”
The cast includes a mix of seasoned, professional actors and up-and-coming performers. Ensley said he was able to bring in talent whom he knew already, as well as pull from the talent in the local community. He said it has been rewarding to get to work with some of his friends professionally while providing experience and opportunity for a younger generation of performers.
After the show was cast, the actors were given their scripts and music and were asked to “do their homework.” Ensley said they had discussions about the concept of the show and their goals for the production. After that, they moved into music rehearsals with musical director Ellen Robinson. Ensley then began blocking, staging and developing characters with the actors before they worked on choreography with Lisa Blanton. Then, all of the elements are combined to put the show on its feet.
“We do a whole lot in a compressed amount of time,” Ensley said.
Ensley has enjoyed working with the cast and putting the show together, but the directing process has not come without challenges. Many of the cast members work, have families or are in school while balancing their commitment to the show, so Ensley has had to find a way to manage schedule conflicts while still rehearsing effectively.
Almost one week before the show’s opening, an actor had to drop out of the production. The assistant stage manager for the show, Hunter Stilwell, has stepped in to take on an ensemble role while still performing his backstage duties.
He is not the only one wearing multiple hats. Blanton doubles as the show’s choreographer and plays the role of Tanya, one of Donna’s backup singers.
“It’s been a challenge,” Blanton admitted. “It’s challenging to stop watching everybody and rehearse myself. It’s hard to let go of what it looks like and just focus on what I need to do.”
Blanton has choreographed in studios, schools and theaters all over Charlotte. For this show, she drew inspiration from her own experience listening to ABBA when she was younger. She and Ensley also attended another production of the show in a different city to see what they did with choreography.
“It’s a little easy since I’m the right age,” Blanton said. “The ABBA music and the old videos, that’s my era. Being familiar with the music makes it easier. And the Internet allows you to watch a lot of different versions. Usually, it just starts with seeing the music in your head.”
Because she was chosen as the choreographer before the show was cast, Blanton had to adapt her choreography ideas to the cast’s size, strengths and experience. Once the show was cast, she could put the choreography together.
Blanton has worked with Ensley and Robinson many times. She said it is “always a treat” to collaborate with them, especially because she knows what Ensley is expecting and what direction he wants to go in with the show.
The biggest challenge when it comes to choreography is teaching it in the space at the Matthews Community Center. Sometimes, they have large spaces, like the community room. But other times, they have been in smaller classrooms. This makes it challenging when adapting it for the stage.
“You have to teach a big group, squish it into the space and then translate it onto the set, and that will be a whole new challenge,” Blanton said. “We’ll have levels and things in our way, so that’s always a challenge.”
The cast only moves the production to the stage once they are done piecing the show together. They then get to work with the set, props, costumes, music, sound and lights. This is when the show begins to come to life.
John Bayless designed the set. It is centered around Donna’s Greek taverna and gives the audience a view into Donna’s room on stage, as well as opportunities for the actors to enter the stage from other parts of the theater.
By Jan. 31, the cast will be ready for its opening night.
“It’s a challenge that everyone is up for and everybody loves,” Ensley said. “Everybody is so excited about being in the show that it’s worth it.”
Want to go?
“Mamma Mia” runs through Feb. 9 at Matthews Playhouse. Tickets for the evening and matinee performances are available at www.matthewsplayhouse.com.