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Laughter, love and pop music

Heidi Rice as Donna Sheridan

“Glitter is in my veins,” says Heidi Rice whose childhood love of Abba music, and her more adult affection for the musical Mamma Mia, helped land her a lead role in the Musical Theatre Gisborne (MTG) production.

Rice was keen to play Donna Sheridan, hotel owner on the Greek island of Kalokairi, and mother of the bride Sophie, but would have taken any role, just to be in Mamma Mia. Donna is thrown into a tailspin when she finds Sophie has invited three men to the island in hope of meeting her real father.

“I love any form of acting but I’ve grown up around musical theatre.

“I’m a huge Abba fan and I’ve seen Mamma Mia in Auckland, Rotorua and Whakatane. It’s such a happy show it leaves you on a high, a big buzz. Abba takes me back to my childhood. We used to dance to Abba as kids during sleep overs.”

Playing Donna in the MTG production of Mamma Mia marks Rice’s comeback to the stage after seven years absence. The last show she was in was the highly acclaimed, Keren Rickard-directed musical-drama, Cabaret, in which Rice took on the challenging role of Sally Bowles (Played by Liza Minnelli in the movie version). In Mamma Mia not only will Rice once more play a lead character but gets to share the stage with her son and talented dancer Austin Rice.

“It’s cool to have him in a show with me. I’ve always like the idea but I didn’t want to be the pushy mum.”

Austin plays Pepper, a bartender who is seduced by one of Donna’s friends.

“I’m stoked to be in the show and I’m stoked to watch him and to see him understand why I love doing shows. He saw the set yesterday and said ‘I can’t wait’.”

The romantic comedy Mamma Mia can be played as frothy, fruity and fun but Rice wants to bring out the shades of poignancy and pain scripted for her character. To get match fit for the dance and singing routines she has also taken on spin classes, weight training and treadmill walking.

“It’s been nice to delve into the character. I don’t want to play her part lightly. There are a lot of layers to Donna. You can tap onto the emotion in Mamma Mia. Donna is a solo mother, Sophie is leaving home — having a child leave home is always hard — and there is lost love — of the three men one could have been the love of her life.

“I really enjoy exploring character, I want to explore raw emotion, a character’s emotional roller coaster. I love putting myself in other people’s shoes and seeing what works.”

Peter Grealish as Sam Carmichael

Cast as architect Sam Carmichael, one of Sophie’s possible fathers, is Peter Grealish. Sam was a young man when he met Donna Sheridan on Kalokairi. He fell in love with her but was engaged to another woman and left. Donna was heartbroken and refused to ever speak to him again. Along with Harry Bright and Bill Anderson, Sam is invited by Sophie back to the island. Sam is a cocky character and still has strong feelings for Donna.

Like Rice, Grealish also has much to explore in his character but still has real-life strong feelings for the music of Abba.

“As a child in the late 1970s I was into their music. I was about nine when those songs came out. Kids and parents loved the music. It’s so catchy and likeable. You see that come through with younger kids in the cast.”

The Abba sound is peak pop music but as an adult Grealish hears deeper meaning in them. The songs are often about relationships, good and bad, he says. Online music magazine Dazed backs up Grealish’s insight.

“Abba take the intimacy of a domestic quarrel between lovers and inject melodrama (‘Mamma Mia!’) and a crashing, anguished, almost unbearably catchy hook.

“A marimba tick-tocks in the background as the song chronicles a relationship that can’t last, and the pain of moving on.”

Abba’s sad songs underline the love/hate relationship between Sophie and Donna, says Grealish. In a particularly poignant moment when they are trying to work out what is going on Sophie and Donna sing SOS as a duo.

Where are those happy days, they seem so hard to find?

I tried to reach for you, but you have closed your mind.

“They’re not just pop songs. They’re written with a story in them. You can tap into the emotion in them.”

Grealish has a solo spot with the song Knowing Me, Knowing You with the lines “In these old familiar rooms/ Children would play/ Now there’s only emptiness/ Nothing to say.”

“My character’s marriage didn’t work and he’s telling Sophie these things don’t always work out the way you expect them to. It’s quite an emotional path we have going on.

“You can play it easy or you can go in deep.”

Having played a big part in getting Mamma Mia staged as a full scale production in Gisborne, Grealish is rapt the cast will be accompanied by a live orchestra made up of keyboard players Coralie Hunter, Trish Tattle, Catherine Macdonald and Tracy Bacon, guitarists Cameron Wood, Joseph Samuel Walsh, and Tahi Paenga, bass guitarist Peter Te Kani; Mikey Jones on percussion and Amanda Maclean on drums.

“The music is amazing and they’ve done an amazing job with it.”

Although Grealish and Rice both performed in MTG’s production of A Slice of Saturday Night (1993), and in the Keren Rickard-directed production of Cabaret, Mamma Mia will be the first time they have performed together as principles since they starred in Gisborne Theatre Arts’ production of Anything Goes, a 1934 Cole Porter musical that centres on the characters’ antics aboard a New York to London ocean liner.

“My character was after her and she wasn’t giving in,” says Grealish.

“It’s fun to play another part like that 28 years later. We were only kids back then.”

Tirzah Russell as Sophie Sheridan

Could 20-year-old Sophie be a little too close to 21-year-old, real-life Tirzah Russell who plays the bride-to-be — and is responsible for bringing to the island the three men, one of whom could be her father? Could that generational connection help Russell develop a deeper character?

“It’s a funny thing being similar in age, to be honest. I just got married as well. It’s a mix — Sophie’s old enough to be making all these decisions but she’s still child-like and innocent. There are times when she is fun and flirty but times when she knows what she wants.

“It’s a weird age when you’re balanced between childhood and adulthood.”

Surprisingly, Donna and Sophie do not appear together in many of the show’s scenes. They talk about each other a lot, and perform in the same choruses, but their face-to-face scenes only really come to the fore in the second act, says Russell.

“The closest interaction is in the second act. Sophie is stressed, man. She’s in that place where she knows what she wants, she’s set on knowing who her dad is. Once she realises she has no idea who he is — that’s when she realises she’s not in control of the situation.”

Those who saw Evolution Theatre Company’s fine production of the tragi-comedy Sylvia will recall Russell’s memorable performance as a stray dog whose high energy and personality puts a strain her new owner and his wife’s marriage. After seeing her performance in Sylvia what is even more surprising is to hear Russell used to get stage fright.

“I only recently got past that. The confidence is back — especially with performing with such a great cast. Playing Sylvia got me back into the rhythm again of how rehearsals work. I lost quite a bit of weight doing Sylvia.”

Hours spent in rehearsal during the week, and often 12 hour Saturday sessions, for Mamma Mia are paying off.

“What they recommend is to go for a jog and to sing your songs at the same time to get accustomed to singing and dancing at the same time.

“My fitness has stepped up, my voice has got stronger.”

Theatre-goers can expect to see Russell’s signature energy bubble in Sophie in MTG’s Mamma Mia.

“The energy in Sophie is similar to that in Sylvia. Both are young, high energy, bubbly characters but finding the differences is fun.”

HAPPINESS: The cast of Mamma Mia dance up a storm. Picture by Stephen Jones Photography
THE DAUGHTER: Tirzah Russell (right), as Donna’s daughter Sophie Sheridan, looks forward to finding out which of her mother’s three former lovers, one of which was Sam (Peter Grealish), might be her father. Picture by Stephen Jones Photography