‘Mamma Mia!’ a show with heart

A ‘care­free es­cape’ fu­eled by retro ABBA

The Commercial Appeal - Go Memphis - - STAGE - By Jon W. Sparks Spe­cial to The Com­mer­cial Ap­peal

Jor­dan Ni­chols feels very good about the feel-good mu­si­cal that’s open­ing Play­house on the Square’s 2016-17 sea­son.

“I was think­ing what it is about ‘Mamma Mia!’ that peo­ple love,” he says, “and so much of it, of course, is the ABBA mu­sic, which is of a cer­tain gen­er­a­tion. Many peo­ple re­late to so much of that mu­sic through per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ences. ‘Danc­ing Queen,’ for ex­am­ple, usu­ally brings vivid mem­o­ries of some­thing in their lives. I’d for­got­ten how many songs ABBA wrote that were huge hits.” But it’s more than the catchy tunes. “Some­thing about it feels like a fairy tale,” he says, ”with a girl hop­ing to find which of three guys is her dad, so right off the bat, it’s a con­flict. It’s a very clever story line to de­velop, and a lot of songs drop into that so well. The cre­ators were able to make these 25 songs re­ally flow and work them into the plot.” And it’s even more than that. “Some peo­ple say it’s a fluffy show,” Ni­chols says. “But it does have a lot of heart, and that’s why peo­ple re­late. There are many themes, such as grow­ing up, the mother-daugh­ter re­la­tion­ship, let­ting go and mov­ing on, new ad­ven­tures in life, the rekin­dling of love and dis­cov­ery of new love. They’re what peo­ple can re­late to but told in such a fun, care­free man­ner. There’s a rea­son ABBA was as suc­cess­ful as it was.”

Ni­chols is grate­ful for his two lead­ing ladies — An­nie E. Fr­eres as the mom, Donna, and Jenna New­man as her daugh­ter, So­phie. “When they came into au­di­tion, there was no ques­tion,” he says. “They even look like mother and daugh­ter.”

Nail­ing the mu­sic is es­sen­tial, he says, “and those two women’s voices are some of the best I’ve heard in Mem­phis. An­nie sings with every ounce of her be­ing — I’ve never seen a per­former who so fully em­bod­ies a song and lives in it. It’s a fine line be­tween hon­esty and be­ing fully com­mit­ted without go­ing too far and tip­ping it into melo­drama that could read as cheesy. An­nie to­tally nails Donna. And Jenna’s So­phie is the epit­ome of sweet­ness and op­ti­mism and hope where her mom is cyn­i­cal and jaded by life. Jenna cap­tures the in­no­cence in a way that helps carry the show.”

Ni­chols wanted to take the show and ex­pand its ap­peal to those older and younger than the ABBA gen­er­a­tion. “For me, I wanted to take some­thing a lot of peo­ple had seen and loved and put my own spin on it,” he says. “It’s set on a Greek is­land, and we tried to cre­ate a space that would let peo­ple feel like they were in Greece, with an old Greek the­ater and the idea of Greek gods and twists of fate and the whole pup­petry of mythol­ogy and be­ing ma­nip­u­lated. That was some­thing I don’t think they did much of in the Broad­way pro­duc­tion, so I wanted to do that here.”

In re­hearsals, Ni­chols says, he sits for two hours with a smile on his face. “That’s the thing about ‘Mamma Mia!,’” he says. “It’s such a great, care­free es­cape from life that is re­ally needed right now. It’s hope­ful, happy, a show that can take you away for a fun ad­ven­ture. Maybe it’s not the deep­est play, but it touches the heart, and the mu­sic warms the soul in a way I think many mu­si­cals to­day have not been able to do.”

“Mamma Mia!”: Aug. 12-Sept. 4 at Play­house on the Square, 66 S. Cooper. Show­times: 8 p.m. Thurs­days, Fri­days, Satur­days; 2 p.m. Sun­days. Tick­ets: $25 open­ing week­end, $35-40 Thurs­days and Sun­days, $40-45 Fri­days and Satur­days, $25 se­niors, $20 stu­dents/mil­i­tary; $15 chil­dren un­der 18. Info: 901-726-4656 and play­house­on­thesquare.org.

THE SOUL OF BESSIE SMITH

Les­lie Red­dick is di­rect­ing Hat­tiloo Theatre’s sea­son opener — “The Devil’s Mu­sic: the Life and Blues of Bessie Smith” — and she’s ea­ger to tell this ex­tra­or­di­nary story.

The show, with Sa­man­tha Lynn Miller as the leg­endary blues singer, is set in Mem­phis on the last night of Smith’s life in a small club where she sings and lets her in­ner­most feel­ings come out.

“The thing we talked about in re­hearsals was Bessie’s need for a gen­uine true love and ac­cep­tance,” Red­dick says. “Be­cause she talks about her life, you see how im­por­tant it was for her to have this se­cure kind of love. What I’d like for peo­ple to take away from the show is that she had a life and tal­ent and per­son­al­ity so huge that it over­shad­owed who she was at her core. See­ing her in these re­vealed mo­ments you see what’s there and her need for love be­yond the crowds of cheer­ing fans. She wanted to be loved and ac­cepted for who she was, with all her faults and tal­ents. She was rough and raw and gifted and had an in­cred­i­ble tal­ent, but also the other side of the coin was she was trou­bled, as gifted peo­ple of­ten can be.”

It takes place in Mem­phis on Sept. 25, 1937, set in a buf­fet flat, the kind of in­ti­mate venue com­monly found around the coun­try, of­ten in a house, that of­fered en­ter­tain­ment, food, drink and of­ten sex. Ear­lier that evening, she was sched­uled to per­form at a white club, but the man­age­ment wanted her to en­ter through the back door. Hav­ing none of it, she de­cided to go have a good time at the buf­fet flat where she could hold court and en­ter­tain the way she wanted to. The mu­si­cal, imag­in­ing that sce­nario, in­cludes 11 of her songs wo­ven among her sto­ries. The next day, while trav­el­ing to her next gig in Mis­sis­sippi, she was killed in an au­to­mo­bile ac­ci­dent on High­way 61 near Clarks­dale.

Per­form­ing Bessie is Sa­man­tha Lynn Miller, an ac­com­plished singer who has per­formed at Play­house on the Square (“The Gospel at Colonus”) and Hat­tiloo (“The Wiz”). “She has an in­cred­i­ble voice,” Red­dick says, “and can sing any genre of mu­sic. It takes a lot to im­press me since I’ve been do­ing mu­si­cal the­ater for 40 years, but her voice im­pressed me.”

Red­dick says Miller is find­ing the gems of Bessie Smith and bring­ing them out in her per­for­mance. The mu­si­cal di­rec­tor is Ju­lian Jones, who plays the band­leader, Pickle.

“The Devil’s Mu­sic: the Life and Blues of Bessie Smith”: Aug. 12-Sept. 4 at Hat­tiloo Theatre, 37 S. Cooper St. Show­times: 7:30 p.m. Thurs­days, Fri­days, Satur­days; 2 p.m. Satur­days, 3 p.m. Sun­days. Tick­ets: $30; $26 se­niors/stu­dents ex­cept Satur­day mati­nee, which is $20. April 21 is pay-what-you want per­for­mance. Info: hat­tiloo. org or 901-525-0009. Adult con­tent.

Claire Kol­heim (left), Anne E. Fr­eres and Kim Sanders in “Mamma Mia!” open­ing tonight at Play­house on the Square.

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