BWW Interviews: MAMMA MIA's Alison Ewing
Mamma Mia! is back in the place where it all began – San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre! The show debuted here on the west coast back in 2000 where rave reviews propelled it on to Broadway. Its phenomenal Broadway run (yes, it’s still there) meant that touring companies soon followed and now the show has been, and continues to be seen, around the world. Broadwayworld’s Linda Hodges caught up with actress Alison Ewing, who plays thrice married (and thrice divorced), delicious “cougar” Tanya in the show. That interview follows.
Alison, let’s give a little recap for our readers. Mamma Mia! is based on the music of Abba with a book by Catherine Johnson. The story is about 20-year-old Sophie who longs for her father to walk her down the aisle at her impending wedding. The problem is – she doesn’t know who he is – but she’s narrowed it down to three possibilities. Writing to them as her mother, Donna, she invites them all to her wedding. Mayhem ensues!
One of the taglines for the show is “A trip down the aisle you’ll never forget!” You recently had your own trip down the aisle when you married bay area actor and singer Keith Pinto. Was it a big wedding?
Yes, Keith and I were married on Oct. 1st outdoors at the top of Mount Tamalpais. It was a pretty eclectic wedding, as Keith and I are both actors. We had a lot of people come from all over the United States, which made for a fantastic time. It was such a great day.
And who walked you down the aisle?
My dad walked me down the “aisle,” which was actually a dirt path. That was a great moment I’ll never forget.
It sounds wonderful! How did you and Keith meet?
Doing a show at the New York Fringe Festival, called “Becoming Britney,” a musical about Britney Spears. Keith is now doing the show in San Jose at the Retro Dome, and tickets are on sale! (plug, plug) When we were rehearsing that show, I immediately noticed that he had a great personality, talent, and an amazing work ethic. We had so much fun putting that show together and our instant connection was undeniable.
Do you call the bay area home?
Yes, and I'm so proud to call the Bay Area my home! I am from Iowa, and have spent the first part of my career in New York City, but from the moment I moved to San Francisco, I was in love and never wanted to live anywhere else.
I would have to say that I agree with you there. It’s a fantastic city! How often do you get to come home when you’re on tour?
We have about 5 weeks total a year that we have a lay-off and get to go home. Our last one was at Christmas time. We are lucky to play here for two weeks, so I can live at home while I’m doing the play at night.
I think Mamma Mia! has got some of the best female characters on Broadway. You play Tanya, one of mother-of-the-bride Donna’s best friends. Johnson really keyed in on the bond that women have with their best friends. Do you have a best friend? If so, how long have you known her?
My longest best friend, Amy, I have known since pre-school. She has known me longer than anyone. We watched each other grow up. My college best friend, Suzanne, is the person I call when we need to escape and go to Vegas for a weekend. She has seen some funny times with me! And my bay area best friend, Dani, is the person I call when I need to talk for two hours on the phone about life and love. She has the best ear on the planet.
That’s so important! How would you describe your character?
Tanya is a lady who likes the finer things in life. She loves to look put together and adores attention from men. But she also has a no-nonsense part about her. She has been there and knows exactly what she wants and how to make her life work. She also adores her girlfriends and, despite her vanity, she would do anything for Donna and Rosie, her truest family in her life.
Tanya is also so much fun!
I like that most of the time she’s not too serious. She came to the island to look good and have a good time -- and that’s exactly what she does!
Were you an ABBA fan before being cast in the show?
I didn’t own any of the music. I knew a handful of their songs, but being in the show made me appreciate the full spectrum of their music, like how they could write a song like “Chiquitita” and then turn around and write “I do, I do.”
I know, I know! Definitely some talented writing by former band members Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus. What’s your favorite ABBA song from the show?
Chiquitita by far! It has this really groovy beat behind it, and the backup vocals rock.
How many times have you performed Mamma Mia?
We are somewhere around 450 shows right now.
Wow! Okay, I have to ask – with all that traveling how do you keep in shape?
I run a lot. We have gym memberships in most of the cities we play, and I am pretty religious about working out, lifting weights, doing plyometrics, circuit training, etc. This also helps me warm up my voice for the show every night.
And after 450 shows how do to keep it fresh?
To keep it fresh you kind of have to vary the inflections in the lines a little bit from time to time just to make your brain think a little. And if someone in the play gives you a different reading, then you can play off of them.
Do you ever experience stage fright?
If I ever have, it turns to energy and excitement right before I go on stage.
Have you ever forgotten your lines?
Have I ever forgotten my lines? Ummm…just last week, I completely forgot a line. I was really tired, I guess. I said the word GARBAGE instead of the word GLORY. Everyone was laughing, including me….it happens.
Mamma Mia! is such a feel-good show, with fans coming to experience the fun again and again. Have you ever had a “bad” audience? Are there some nights when the jokes fall flat or the energy is down? If so, how does this cast handle that?
You really can’t do a show this long in more than 100 cities without the audiences varying a lot. We’re used to a lot of different reactions, and just kind of roll with what the audiences give us. But the audience is never “bad.” And in the end, no matter what the show has been like, people are always cheering and dancing and singing along in the finale. That never changes.
Mamma Mia! is based on pop music. Some artists wouldn’t consider it “real theatre.” What are your thoughts?
It has a very appealing and fun story line. It makes you laugh, it makes you cry, and it makes you remember great music that is still popular today. What more could you want out of real theatre?
Musically, it’s a trip down memory lane for a lot of us.
Everybody remembers the music, knows the music, and wants to re-live the music. Put that with a really light-hearted storyline about a topic that everyone can relate to, family and friendships and true love, and you’ve got an audience who wants to be there again and again.
What, in the show, works exceptionally well in your opinion?
The finale works really well at getting the audience on their feet. The loud rocking music, the dancing, and then bright colors -- put together it makes for a wow ending.
And lastly, what’s next for you professionally and personally?
I’m not sure. I will go back to San Francisco when this show is over and start auditioning again. I would like to get back into the voice-over market and do some other musicals. Oh, and Keith and I need to move to a bigger apartment and start using all of our wedding gifts!
Feb 21 - March 4, 2012
The Orpheum Theatre
Running time: 2 hours and 32 minutes
Photo courtesy of Joan Marcus