Huge amount of work before rehearsals begin

IN STEP: "Mamma Mia!" dance captain Melanie Bradley works with the cast at rehearsals.
IN STEP: "Mamma Mia!" dance captain Melanie Bradley works with the cast at rehearsals.

Mamma Mia!, delivering the fabulous music of ABBA, opens at the Civic Theatre next month. Each week we go backstage with Invercargill Musical Theatre to gain a rare insight into what it takes to produce a show of this calibre.

One thing not often considered is the preparation the cast put in before they even reach rehearsal.

David McMeeking has 30 years' experience in musical theatre, performing in many shows throughout New Zealand and overseas. He takes every rehearsal as it comes. Step one is to keep in touch with the rehearsal schedule. He checks to see what's on the agenda and makes sure he is well prepared.

"This morning I walked for an hour and a half, just listening to the show and continually working on my lyrics. Some lyrics don't stick so it's just a matter of listening to them over and over again. I'll do a few stretches before I leave home and do a vocal warmup on the way, just to get my mind in the moment so I'm ready to go when I walk in the door."

Alice McKinlay is relatively new to musical theatre. After her standout performance in Grease last year she has landed the gargantuan role of Sophie in Mamma Mia!

She is humble about it but at the same time exudes a steely fierce determination that puts you on notice when she speaks.

"I do singing practice every day to build resistance in my voice. I will be teaching every day during the show so will need my voice to be strong. I am also taking singing lessons, learning my lines and attending rehearsals almost every night. I have recorded everyone else's lines on my cellphone and then practice putting my lines in with them. I also get my partner, brother, family member - whoever is around - to read lines with me.

"I try to make the most of every rehearsal. Time will go very quickly and when you get to theatre you need to have put the work in. I find it terrifying waiting for the curtain to go up but then if you know you have put the work in it makes it a little bit easier."

Onstage cast member Amelia Dowling gets to rehearsal early. "I like to be early so I can just relax, gather my thoughts and get in that zone."

Dowling is a singer and has no formal training in dance. She learns her music like everybody else, listening to tracks provided by musical director Michael Buick, over and over again. Learning the dance movement is a bit different.

All the dance rehearsals are recorded and put up on a closed Facebook page for the cast. Dowling watches the recordings at home, taking particular notice of what the trained dancers are doing and how they are doing it. Then she practices with the recording, drilling in the movement time and time again.

The rehearsal season is demanding. The initial schedules read Sunday to Thursday, with Sundays running from 1pm-6pm, Monday to Thursday 7pm-9.30pm. Director Stephen Robertson is just returning from his time with Blood Brothers in Christchurch. The new schedule now includes Fridays and Saturdays. There are now 28 hours of scheduled rehearsal hours a week. Each hour is scheduled to ensure the best use of everyone's time.

Josie McSoriley sits at the director's table. As the production secretary she attends every rehearsal, chases up any latecomers and makes sure all the cast have their schedules. She will take notes for the director and ensure good communication between management and cast. She deals with any cast concerns and is the glue that makes this part of the process stick.

You could quite rightly mistake rehearsal for a gym class as most of the cast are dressed in loose- fitting comfortable sweat gear. It's winter yet all the heaters are off and the windows are open. They are dressed for work, some in flat shoes and some in high heels as they try to get their bodies adjusted to what will be required onstage. Others choose to wear clothes similar to their costumes, just to get familiar dancing with constrictions.

The energy in the room is boisterous, the body language enthusiastic and, when they talk, it is in full voice, similar to a room of hyperactive children without restraint.

As leads perform their songs, the cast are tapping their feet, following their scripts and mouthing the words with them. There are no distractions. The interest is intense.

During the occasional break, small groups splinter off and rehearse parts that need work.

As the onstage cast take their places on the rehearsal floor, Melanie Bradley moves centre stage. She is the dance captain and while Robertson has been away she is charged with ameliorating the movement, getting it locked in and tided up, ready for his return.

"They need to be secure in their minds with what they doing," Bradley says. "I am looking at the execution of the movement, making sure the detail is accurate and now developing the energy so we are growing rehearsal into performance. They are now singing as well as dancing, which is bringing a real growth in confidence. I am sure Stephen is going to be very pleased with the progress made."

The opportunity to work hard on the music and get the movement well bedded in has been seized.

Robertson's return this weekend will bring a new level of intensity to rehearsal. Everyone knows it, everyone is excited by it and everyone is looking forward to the final ride to theatre.

Neale Smith is technical director for the Mamma Mia! show.

* Mamma Mia! is presented by Invercargill Musical Theatre at the Civic Theatre, August 6-16. Tickets on sale now at TicketDirect, ICC Booking Office, Esk St, Invercargill.

The Southland Times