‘Mamma Mia!’ a show with heart
A ‘carefree escape’ fueled by retro ABBA
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.