FORTVILLE — When the curtain opens on this weekend’s production of “Mamma Mia!” at Mt. Vernon High School, the freshman thespians won’t be the only newbies in the theater.
Drama instructor Richard Barber is kicking off his first year teaching at the school after accumulating years of diverse stage experiences throughout his career.
He’s performed on stage in Las Vegas and Branson, Mo. and has performed in productions for Royal Caribbean Cruise Line, Busch Gardens in Tampa and Kings Island.
He’s also directed and choreographed for Footlite Musicals and choreographed multiple high school shows.
As a student his favorite roles to play were Winthrop in “The Music Man,” Billy in “Anything Goes.” As an adult his favorite roles have been Shakespeare in “Something Rotten” and Robert Kincaid in “Bridges of Madison County” for Footlite Musicals.
Barber is thrilled to be kicking off his first year at Mt. Vernon High School with “Mamma Mia!,” which holds a special place in his heart.
“I have watched this movie more times than I can count. I remember watching it as a kid and falling in love with the characters, the music and the costumes. I could go on and on about it,” he said.
Barber can’t wait to show audiences what his cast of 31 young actors and actresses can do with the popular musical, which first hit the stage in 1999 and was later adapted to the big screen in 2008, with a movie starring Meryl Streep.
“What drew me to the musical ‘Mamma Mia!’ was the high energy, familiar music of ABBA,” said Barber, referencing the popular Swedish group that rose to fame in the 1970s.
”The show has a unique style of upbeat music that easily lends itself to go hand in hand with a high energy dance style,” he said.
It’s the ninth longest-running show in Broadway history, thanks in part to a running stream of ABBA’s hit songs including “Dancing Queen”, “Take a Chance on Me” and the title track “Mamma Mia,” to name a few.
It’s also a popular pick for high school drama departments. New Palestine High School students performed the musical just last weekend, and Greenfield-Central High School students will perform it next spring.
Barber said the high-energy show has been a big hit among his student performers, who exude the same high energy on stage that’s worthy of a “Mamma Mia!” performance.
He said the young cast has done a tremendous job of tackling the shows choreography, and that he and choreographer Chris Watson Barber “couldn’t be prouder of these young artists’ hard work and determination to be pushed to be the very best.”
Seventeen-year-old senior Claire Gray — who is the same age as the title character of one of the show’s most notable songs, “Dancing Queen” — plays the lead role of Rosie, a young girl whose desperate attempt to meet her birth father before her wedding day leads to comical consequences. All her life, her mother has kept mum about which of three suitors it might be.
Gray is excited to have such a fun-filled musical to kick off her senior year in theater, which she’s been involved with since she was a freshman.
She owes her burgeoning love of theater on her debut performance at Tech High School’s production of “Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat,” in which she played a Rainbow Child when she was in the second grade.
“That was the performance that made me fall in love with theater,” she said.
Gray said it’s funny to see that she and her cast mates in this weekend’s production were each cast as characters that reflect their real-life personalities.
“Rick and Chris, whether or not they planned it this way, have cast the show where everyone’s characters are just an extension of themselves, and it’s wonderful. I spend all day and every day with these people and I wouldn’t change it for the world,” she said.
She’s also excited that this weekend’s musical will mark the theatrical debut for her little brother Brodyn, a sophomore.
Barber promises that all who attend this weekend’s production will leave with a smile on their face and some pep in their step.
“The audience should expect a fun evening where they can sing along, dance the dance and feel a part of the 70s once again … (They are) going to love the chemistry between all of these characters and are going to find themselves getting wrapped up in the story and never wanting to leave, just like I have,” he said.