Way Way Off-Broadway Theatre Company brings global smash hit musical to stage
By Christina Stock
Way Way Off-Broadway Theatre Company is bringing the ultimate feel-good musical to the stage of Eastern New Mexico University-Roswell Performing Arts Center, 52 University Blvd. The public has two weekends to see “Mamma Mia!” from June 21 to 23 and June 28 to 30, with showings on Fridays and Saturdays at 7 p.m. and on Sundays at 2:30 p.m.
The stage performance of the musical “Mamma Mia!” was written by British playwright Catherine Johnson and is based on the songs of the Swedish pop-phenomenon ABBA. The music was composed by the original male members of the band, Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, with premiere in London in 1999, where it is the seventh longest-running show in West End history. When it hit Broadway only two years later, there was no doubt that it would make a great movie, as well.
Many cast members of WWOB’s production are too young to remember the original band, but grew up with its music since the movie release in 2008.
ABBA’s hits frame and infuse the show, telling the hilarious story of a young woman’s search for her birth father.
This sunny and funny tale unfolds on a Greek island paradise. On the eve of her wedding, a daughter’s quest to discover the identity of her father brings three men from her mother’s past back to the island they last visited 20 years ago.
While the original stage musical asks for only 13 members, WWOB had so much talent auditioning, they upped the chorus and have a much bigger cast now.
“I think we ended up with over 20 easily, and we may be pushing 30 in this cast,” director Gail Dixon-Willden said. “We had so much talent turn out and then we still couldn’t cast everybody that showed up. It was just amazing, the amount of talent that is in this town and are willing to give up summer for this show. We were really, really blessed with the group that came out and it has been just a dream cast.”
Dixon-Willden has been in the theater for 30 years. “I took a little break and came back and what drew me back was this particular group,” she said. “I just love these people, I can’t say enough about them.”
Asked about her style in directing, Dixon-Willden said, “I come in prepared; I know what I want to see; I have some ideas for on stage, but I love to collaborate and work with my assistant director and choreographer, my music director, as well as my cast because I’ll have ideas ready. Then I tell them more what I see in their character and motivation, what’s going on in the scene and give them a little framework and see where that takes them. When I have specific moments, I put the specific moments in, or I see things that happen through discovery, through the rehearsal process, which is one of my favorite things. We explore that moment and lock it in for the cast. I love that moment when we can’t remember whose idea it was. Because it’s so much collaboration and such a fluent process. When you have positive energetic people who are willing to do and try anything, it just makes all of us work on a better level.”
While the musical is not interactive, it is hard to stay in one’s seat, even during rehearsals. “How can we not have fun with ABBA music? I am reliving my childhood I keep telling them every night. This is me dancing on my bed at home when I was 7 or 8 years old. You just can’t help it, you just join in, especially at the end. I call it a little mini-concert the playwright has given us. We get to revisit some numbers of the show that everybody knows and then add ‘Waterloo.’ Because how can you have an ABBA show without ‘Waterloo?’” Dixon-Willden said.
The musical has a deeper meaning for Dixon-Willden. “I had a daughter go to grad school and my son going to college, he just graduated,” she said. “When Jessica (Haynes) sings ‘Sliding Through My Fingers,’ she is just perfect with the demeanor, the sound and of course, her performance — it’s so moving. I am telling everybody to bring tissues for this number if you have children.”
Cast as the young woman looking for her father is Elissa Cailyn Featherstone. “I play Sophie,” she said. “I think this is my fifth performance, but it’s my first lead. I am stoked.”
Asked what the biggest challenge is for her, Featherstone said, “Definitely conquering stage fright. It’s been hard, but I’m getting through it because it’s such a great cast and they are really helping me.”
Featherstone is continuing her education in August at Eastern New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. She is planning to continue performing.
Elexis de la Rosa is part of the chorus, but is no stranger to the stage. A musician in her own right, she has performed at a local coffee shop, at the Eastern New Mexico State Fair and is going to perform at the upcoming UFO Festival. She was born and raised in Roswell. “I am in the ensemble for this show, it’s a lot of fun being here with everybody every day. It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it at the end,” de la Rosa said. “We have a lot of arts in Roswell. It’s really fun to go outside here to see what other people have to offer and explore new music.”
De la Rosa is a student at ENMU-R studying business administration.
The lead went to Jessica Haynes who is an experienced actor, singer and dancer. “Donna is a real fun role for us little older women,” she said. “This is a role that has actually a lot of meaning to it, because it’s about her daughter coming of age, moving up, getting married and then there come these three men she hasn’t seen — I can’t say that she hasn’t thought about them, because she definitely has thought about Sam — the last 20 years, but they are in the past and she has moved on. Here they all are. She has a lot of comedy in her role and she’s got a lot of emotion in her role, a lot of anger in her role, a lot of sadness in her role and a lot of insecurity, I think.”
“It is a fun role because you tap into all. You get to be silly with the Dynamos because that’s the best part of the show in a lot of ways. It’s that connection of these girlfriends that you had since your youth and you stayed in touch with them and get together every few years and rekindle that magic. It’s a lot of fun. Then you get to tap into the broken heart that we have all experienced at some point in our life in some way,” Haynes said.
Asked what her biggest challenge is, former opera singer Haynes said that in the past, she had been cast in classical musicals, which is comfortable for her. “Donna is a little more challenging because there is a bit more of a Broadway belt to the way most of these songs are done, so I have to stay in my mind in it, which is a fun challenge for me because it gives me something different at this point of my life — I am having fun with it,” Haynes said. “If you love ‘Mamma Mia!,’ you love ABBA and that’s why you love ‘Mamma Mia!’ We’re on fire doing it because it’s so much fun, it’s iconic music. It is fun to dance to, fun to sing. It’ll make you laugh and make you cry and make you dance.”
Also cast are Julie Washichek as Tanya and Michele Massey as Rosie, who together with Donna form the friend-team Dynamos. Phil Davis is cast as Sam; Jason Stewart is cast as Harry and Stephen Mhur is cast as Bill. Juan Macias is cast as Sky, Spenser Willden is cast as Pepper, Nicholas Featherstone is cast as Eddie, Kaitlyn Roe is cast as Lisa and Erin Steinke is cast as Ali.
Cast in the chorus are, Tabitha Adams, Dylan Allen, Zoe Bedford, John Bitner, Emily Boardman, Daniel Cardenas, Jordan Chester, Kendrick Davis, Logan Davis, Taryn Davis, Patty Evans, Jon Graff, Jenci Huebner, Jessica LaStella, Caden Lethgo, Aleena Hernandez, Isabella Newberry, Jorge Ortiz, Johnny Romero and Alyssa Smith.
Bitner and Tony Souza designed and built the movable buildings on stage, Summer Souza is WWOB’s artistic director and Devon Bullock is its music director.
For more information, visit waywayoffbroadway.com or call 575-317-0157.