Tag Archives: Spencer Ellis

Matthews Mamma Mia! Mixes Summer Romance and Autumn Regret

Review: Mamma Mia! is playing this ABBA hit parade

By Perry Tannenbaum

Promo.1

There’s typical teenybopper inanity – and melodrama – in the lyrics of ABBA tunes that infiltrated the pop charts during the glam rock supergroup’s heyday, 1974-82. It’s all about desire, baby, followed by intense workouts on the hormonal treadmill of adolescence. Prospecting for ABBA gold, you’re rewarded with the age-old cycle of blissful acceptance or bitter ejection, romantic pleasure and conflict, burnout and breakup, cynicism and regret, all rendered in the elegantly engineered shorthand of a Top-40 hit.

Something interesting happened in 2001, after even the youngest member of ABBA had turned 50 and the quartet’s jukebox faves were cunningly transformed into a hit Broadway musical. You can feel it at Matthews Playhouse of the Performing Arts, where Mamma Mia! is playing through February 9. Writing the book for this ABBA hit parade, Catherine Johnson gave most of the songs to characters we could presume were nearly her own age, almost 44 on opening night. Old enough to have teenybopper kids of their own.

When a teenybopper pout is transformed into a midlife lament, regret takes on a whole new coloration in the title song as Donna Sheridan sings:

Yes, I’ve been brokenhearted,

Blue since the day we parted.

Why, why did I ever let you go?

The “day we parted” isn’t two melodramatic weeks ago. Not anymore. It’s over two decades ago, long enough for Donna to be experiencing the autumnal chill of lost youth. But hold on, Donna! You’re on a colorful Greek Isle, with lively cabana studs serving your taverna’s drinks, bikini-clad nymphs frolicking everywhere, dazzling eternal sunshine – and your darling daughter Sophie is getting married tomorrow!

It was easier to see Mamma Mia! from Sophie’s point of view in its Broadway days, pre-Meryl Streep, for Sophie really kickstarts the plot by prying into Mom’s secret diary and inviting all three of her possible dads to her wedding. Imagine if your three exes showed up unexpectedly for your daughter’s wedding. Sophie might as well have hired a skywriter to spell it all out: MOM, I READ YOUR SECRET DIARY AND INVITED ALL THREE OF MY POSSIBLE DADS TO MY WEDDING. Donna probably wouldn’t have looked up and noticed.

Promo.3

Presumably, Mamma is preoccupied with wedding preparations, but Donna compounds her distractions by inviting two of her old chums, Tanya and Rosie, to the festivities. Plenty of catching up to do, but conveniently, the three women were a glam rock vocal trio back in their salad days, Donna and the Dynamos, so they can provide the party entertainment. With this makeshift guest list and its ‘90s setting, the prevailing outlook of the story shifts emphatically toward the baby boomers, ABBA’s perennial demographic.

Directing the show, Billy Ensley clearly gets the boomer drift, and more than a couple of seasoned Charlotte musical stars ride the wave with him to the Matthews Playhouse stage. With a richly detailed scenic design by John Bayless and a sumptuous array of costumes by Lisa Altieri – including a surprise set of glam rock duds for the dads – it’s likely that all of these vets appreciated the warmth of their welcome.

We don’t need to wait around for all these elders to gather in the Mediterranean sun before the excitement begins, for Ensley has found newcomer Alexis Thomas to ignite the action as the nubile Sophie. Thomas quickly proves she’s a precocious belter, bookending Act 1 with lead vocals on “Honey, Honey” and “The Name of the Game.”

Having deceptively invited her three possible dads – Sam, Bill, and Harry – using Mom’s letterhead, Sophie must also subject each of the candidates to an impromptu paternity test, inviting all three to give her away at tomorrow’s wedding. The hurried brevity of these scenes would make any self-respecting playwright blush, but Thomas carries them off as if they were hallowed Broadway formalities, codified as cliché. Which they are. Spencer Ellis doesn’t get nearly as much opportunity to shine as Sky, Sophie’s fiancé, but he makes his big moment in Act 2 count, letting Sophie know that he feels her quest for her true dad is a bigger thing to her than their wedding.

Of course, the ABBA songs, stirred by island breezes and mixed with the celebratory vibe of the oncoming nuptials, become a cocktail that takes all six of the mid-lifers sip by sip from the tipsiness of nostalgia to the full inebriation of regression and reawakening. The women are the most intoxicated here, each arriving at her own pace. Burdened with a mother’s cares and saddled with the bitterness of a jilted sweetheart, Lucia Stetson as Donna travels the longest path – though the magic is there from the moment she sees Sam.

Promo.4

Stetson staunchly deals with the fact that Donna is prone to some truly stupid-ass choices, flexing the same regal star-quality insouciance that carried her through the title role of Evita a couple of summers back. Notwithstanding the baggy overalls she wears early on, we’re not surprised that she’ll soon emerge as a “Dancing Queen” and a “Super Trouper” – singing lead vocals, of course. You wonder a bit at first about Lisa Smith-Bradley, sporting a pair of mousy eyeglasses as Rosie, a far cry from the charismatic Mama Rose she brought to Theatre Charlotte seven years ago.

Never fear, Ensley and Smith-Bradley are cooking up a startling mouse-to-tigress rejuvenation as Rosie sets her sights on Bill, sinking her slinky claws into him in their “Take a Chance on Me” duet. Lisa Blanton talks like the bawdiest woman onstage as Tanya, but is it all talk? No, it is definitely not as we watch Blanton’s cougar rampage on “Does Your Mother Know?” Blanton pulls double duty at Matthews, doubling as the production’s choreographer, captaining her own carnivorous showcase with obvious gusto.

Aside from Thomas, a young talent to watch, the most promising of the young Greeks is Adrian White as Pepper, prime target for Tanya’s predations in “Does Your Mother Know?” – agile and slightly bewildered. He’s the dancing king here, for none of his elders, aside from Blanton, was chosen for hoofing prowess.

We’ve seen all the middle-aged guys before in Charlotte, Bob Mauney most recently starring in The Music Man at Theatre Charlotte, Steven B. Martin in Evita and Bridges of Madison County, and Patrick Ratchford in anything he has ever auditioned for over the last 25+ years, most recently 1776, Ragtime, and Charlotte Squawks! The Ratchford voice is still in peak condition, mostly held in reserve until Sam’s “S.O.S.” duet with Donna in Act 2, an all-out cri de Coeur in the top-40 world. Those smooth baritone tonsils also wrap themselves around two other hit singles, “Knowing Me, Knowing You” and – spoiler alert – the climactic “I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do” duet.

Sam isn’t the most comical of Donna’s exes, just the most interesting: the last he heard from her before Sophie’s faux invite was that she didn’t want to see him again. Understandably, he’s a bit uncomfortable and ambivalent when Sophie admits the subterfuge, but like the other guys who are also residually fond of Donna in various degrees, the possibility of being Sophie’s father keeps him hanging around in hopes of closure – and maybe making amends.

Martin as Harry and Mauny as Bill follow parallel tracks, not called upon to do much singing. Neither squanders his opportunity, Martin in a nostalgic “Our Last Summer” duet in Donna’s bedroom (here we go again?) and Mauny as Rosie’s willing prey in their “Take a Chance on Me” tête-à-tête. Bill claims to be an adventurer, so a tigress should be just right up his Aussie alley.

Dancing in the Aisles for 36 Years

Interview: Billy Ensley

By Perry Tannenbaum

image001

Call him Mister Versatility. To find anyone else in the Charlotte theatre scene who has been celebrated for excellence in so many different areas as Billy Ensley, you would have to summon up the memory of Alan Poindexter, the wunderkind who came out of the UNC Charlotte theatre program and won accolades as an actor, director, and sound designer. Ensley’s awards, a total of 16 from Creative Loafing and the Metrolina Theatre Association, have been for his work as an actor, director – in musicals, comedies, and dramas – and as a choreographer.

Song and dance were Ensley’s calling cards from the beginning, and they remain handy skills as he directs the upcoming Matthews Playhouse production of Mamma Mia! – the fifth musical that he has directed there. We interviewed Ensley about his evolution as an artist, the enduring popularity of Mamma Mia! and the vital importance of our community theatres.

QC Nerve: Take us back to the early days. Outside of school productions, what was your first appearance on a Charlotte stage? Can you tell us how you felt about theatre at that time and the part it would play in your life?

My first appearance on a Charlotte stage after school was in Seesaw (1983) at Theatre Charlotte [then known as Little Theatre of Charlotte]. At that time, I was moving into theatre as a result of having dance training throughout my youth. Male dancers were in demand, and therefore I was able to make that transition and learn acting and singing as well. While performing on Charlotte stages in my 20’s, I regularly got work in professional theatres, some of which include The Blowing Rock Stage Company, Opera Carolina, Busch Gardens, and Cook/Loughlin productions at Spirit Square.

IMG_6979

I wanted to dedicate my life to the theatre arts, but I also had a strong desire to own a home and be self-sufficient. I worked for over a decade as the director of office operations for the Robinson, Bradshaw & Hinson law firm. After a couple of years in the travel industry, I went to work for Rexus Corporation, a national background screening company, where I am their chief operations officer for 15+ years.

By the time I first saw you back in the late 80s, in House of Blue Leaves and The 1940s Radio Hour, you were well on your way to establishing yourself as Charlotte’s pre-eminent triple threat. How committed were you at that time to accomplishing that goal, and how did you hone your acting, singing, and dancing skills?

At the time, I was not aware that I was establishing myself in any way actually. I was merely doing what I loved and what I was driven to do. Of course, it helped that I was receiving good reviews in the local press and support from the theatre community. That was positive reinforcement to keep working basically two full time jobs.

IMG_6589

Through the support and training of many people in Charlotte – including Tom Vance, Tom Hollis, Ron Chisholm, Terry Loughlin, Steve Umberger, to name a few – I was fortunate enough to work in the theatre almost constantly. I received a lot of my acting and singing training by being in productions, but I also continued to take dance classes, study voice with Joyce Marshall and study acting privately.

What role did our community theatre play in launching your career in theatre? How do see Theatre Charlotte and Matthews Playhouse figuring in the local scene today?

Theatre Charlotte often had the best directors and performers in the region. I was surrounded by some of the best and, as a result, I almost always got a paying gig from that exposure in community theatre. In addition, I was getting excellent hands-on training from them.

IMG_6982

Theatre Charlotte and Matthews Playhouse figure prominently in the local scene today, attracting good directors and seasoned performers as well as exciting new talent. In addition to cultivating new talent, they both are providing a venue for professional performers to have the opportunity to perform roles that may not be possible otherwise, due to the fact that Charlotte still struggles with sustaining many theatre companies.

You’ve made a couple of dramatic changes to reignite your career. First, you stopped doing musical after musical and took on a major role in a straight play, You Should Be So Lucky, in 1997. Then in 2003-04, we suddenly found you directing local productions of Evita, Bat Boy, and Hedwig and the Angry Inch. What motivated you in each of these instances to break out of your previous mold – were there practical considerations involved, or was it all about self-fulfillment?

For me, it was a combination of both. As a dancer, you learn pretty early in life that the thing you have been training for, performing and loving, must eventually come to an end, or at least morph considerably. The same applies to playing the young male leads in musical theatre. I knew that I wanted the theatre to remain in my life, and I wanted to continue growing in other ways so that I could facilitate that.

IMG_6981

As a youngster, I marveled at performers that were always reinventing themselves – David Bowie comes to mind, actually – and I thought that was a great way to remain relevant. I also did not want to be pigeonholed in musical theatre, which I felt I clearly was. I wanted the challenges of dramatic acting like McDonagh’s The Pillowman (2007), in which I was lucky enough to play the lead, Katurian, in the Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte production.

As for directing, that was a slow and methodical process, and not an easy career to break in to. I started choreographing and directing in theatres outside of Charlotte like Belmont Abbey College and Wingate University. Eventually, the executive director at Theatre Charlotte, Candace Sorensen, offered me my first directing job in Charlotte with Sweet Charity (2002). After a few Charlotte shows, I got a great deal of support from Dan Shoemaker and Chip Decker at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte.

Tell us about your history with Matthews Playhouse and what you have experienced there in terms of the quality of their facilities, staff, and talent pool.

I have directed Shrek, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Bonnie & Clyde and Grey Gardens for Matthews Playhouse. Matthews Playhouse is an excellent example of a successful and vibrant community theatre. Under the leadership of June Bayless, they have an excellent staff, a remarkable youth training program, combined with a very nice auditorium and excellent technical staff.

Who are the familiar audience favorites and the hot new discoveries that are going to make your Mamma Mia! a smashing success? Who are the scenic design, costume design, and choreographer aces on the case?

IMG_6570Lucia Stetson and Lisa Blanton are audience favorites. Lucia having played Maria in The Sound of Music and Lisa Blanton having played Little Edie in Grey Gardens. Our two young romantic leads both qualify as hot new discoveries. They are Alexa Thomas and Spencer Ellis as Sophie and Sky. Lisa Blanton agreed to pull double duty for this show by both choregraphing and playing the role of Tanya. Lisa Altieri is handling costumes and Emmy Award-winning John Bayless is the scenic designer. His work is amazing and his talents run very, very deep.

What do you continue to find in Mamma Mia! that keeps us from getting tired of it?

Well, ABBA of course! The music is familiar and well loved; bringing back lots of memories of love and romance for us middle-aged folk. The women characters in the show are strong and independent, the male characters are sensitive and compassionate. Like other jukebox musicals, it is fun to watch a scene that evolves into a song that most of us know at least some of the lyrics to. It is a show where the audience should come in with their hair down, their troubles stowed away, and perhaps their inhibitions stowed away as well – in favor of singing along or dancing in the aisles!