The Springer Opera House opens their 2018 season with "Mamma Mia!" the popular ABBA musical by Benny Andersson & Björn Ulvaeus. The production is under the direction of Shane Hall who returns to direct his third season opener for the Springer.
A native of Phenix City, Alabama, Hall moved home several years ago after a successful career touring as Mr. Mistoffelees in the U.S. National Tour of the TONY award winning Broadway Musical CATS.
In addition to directing shows for the Springer Opera House, Hall is a current, active member of Actor's Equity Assosciation, the world's largest Performing Arts Union. As an actor and a dancer, he continues to work not only on stage but with choreography and casting in New York City. He also owns and directs Prodigy Dance Center where he teaches and choreographs year round.
In anticipation of opening weekend of Mamma Mia! we sat down with Hall to discuss his experience directing the show, and what he hopes audience members will take away from their experience seeing Springer's production.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What are you most excited about with this production?
A: My cast.
Q: You have some first timers, right?
A: I do. I have some first timers, and they're doing an incredible job. Being in the position that I am serving in at the Springer, I really enjoy bringing people here and including them in all of this.
One of the first things I did was take them to Mabella's after rehearsal to have cheesecake. I want them to see why people come here. The incredible community, and everything that is going on. We are right in the heartbeat of it, and the Springer is just so great. Many people are auditioning because their friends are talking about what a wonderful experience they have had working here and with the Springer.
It's a real joy to bring new people here for that reason. If the job and the role is right, I want to bring them here to experience everything our city and our theatre have to offer.
Q: I love that. What has made this particular cast so special to you?
A: Well, there are just so many productions of "Mamma Mia!" all over the world. I feel like sometimes an element of Mamma Mia! that is missed is the heart. It can so easily become this sensational ABBA phenomenon - and it is that, but I think the real underlying appeal is the story. It is a simple, sweet story. But it is a beautiful one.
Q: How did you communicate that to this cast?
A: It was the first thing I said to them. I said, "We have to get the heart of this show out there. I'm not worried about glitzy costumes and fun dance numbers. That will all be there. It happens naturally with this show. We have got to tell the story.
Q: What is special about the story to you?
A: The heart of the story is very relatable to so many people. The main character doesn't know one of her parents, and has so many questions about that side of her family. Whether or not this is part of your own story, I think we can all relate to growing up and having questions about who we are and where we've come from. The story is great because everyone can connect so some aspect of it.
I am adopted, and while Sophie is not, I could really relate to the experience she has meeting her potential biological fathers. I didn't experience the negative things she does when I met my family, but I could certainly relate to the questions she has upon meeting them.
Everyone can find something to relate to in the script. It's just a really fantastic story..
Q: How is your cast bringing the story to life in this production?
A: They have a lot of heart. They are bringing a lot to the stage. I have been really impressed with their commitment to the story and the effort they have put forth to really bring the story to life.
Q: You are a dancer and have choreographed this production. What has the experience been like for you?
A: I love what we've been able to do as a cast with the dancing. Choreographically, we took each of these numbers and put a big push to them. For example, "Money, Money, Money" is really inspired by Sonia Tayeh from So You Think You Can Dance? It's a little tweaked out and it's meant to be that way. The song kind of gets inside Donna's head and the lights change, and we went with the kind of intense aggression that the song is about.
When we go into "Gimme, Gimme" it's very female based. It's very clubby and urban jazz funk kind of a feel. Then we immediately go into "Vous le Vous" and suddenly you have the entire cast on stage doing the exact same movements for four eight counts. It's really in your face, and I love it.
Q: How have you approached the choreography?
A: I am so proud of the cast. They are doing things they didn't believe they could do. These "non-dancers" - they classify themselves as movers - are doing really challenging choreography and they are nailing it.
Q: How have you adapted the choreography for your less experienced dancers?
A: I haven't adapted it at all. It is what it is, and they've worked really hard. They're amazing.
That is part of the job. When we hire people for a show, I don't always really know their exact skill set. If they are a repeat actor that's coming back to us for another show, then yes, I know exactly what they are capable of, how quickly they pick up routines, and how their body moves on the stage.
I don't always have that luxury in the audition process. It's a limited time and you see them doing what you can, but you don't always know if they'll be able to do everything you have planned for them two months later.
That's the first week of rehearsal for me. I call it workshopping. I spend time with everyone figuring out what they can do, how quickly they pick up, and what the specific moves I have planned look like on their bodies verses mine.
This show, I really didn't change anything for them. They have risen to the occasion. Everything is pretty much as it was on day one, and they have done an incredible job.
Q: Do you think that the Springer inspires that in people though? After spending years interviewing directors, professional actors, and community members working in a variety of aspects at the Springer, I have just found a common thread running through all of the conversations - and that is the way the organization inspires people to be and become their best. I really love that about our historic theatre, and the way it impacts people who come here.
A: That is absolutely the truth. The entire theatre and community at the Springer really does. Ron (Anderson) was the first person to hire me as a choreographer. Before he passed away, he always told me I had this gift of making non-dancers who had no confidence in themselves feel confident in themselves onstage. I take that to heart every time I'm working with people on a show.
I think it's because I genuinely care for them. I don't believe that everyone needs to become a dancer. It's more important to me that they feel good about the content I'm giving them and they can do it all with confidence. I think that's always been something I've been seated in, because I think it really matters.
Because this show is so eccentric, it's ABBA, I wanted the choreography to match the hype of the music.
Q: What makes this music different from other shows?
A: Well, when the orchestra plays this music, it's almost a bit bigger than life. Normally, we hear ABBA on the radio. But live? We hear the drums and the synthesizer and it's almost "concerty." We hear the music as it was intended to be performed.
I really felt as though the choreography needed to match that for the show. I wanted the moves to reflect the hype that underlies the whole score.
Q: What else are you excited about for this show?
A: The set. Matthew Swindell has a fantastic artistic eye. He just does really incredible work. He takes the vision for each show and then puts our production value on it. He adds so much heart to it. His use of layers and the depth that he brings to each production is amazing.
What's different about our production of "Mamma Mia!" is that this set is a static set - meaning it stays on stage the entire time - but we have turntables that rotate and help us to establish such a variety of locations in the show. As they turn, we discover the different places the characters go. One turn and we discover a bedroom, the next and we're in a courtyard. It's really, really cool.
Matthew (Swindell) has really used every inch of the stage and provided such a dimension to the story we are telling because of his excellent design. It really looks like the mountains of Greece.
Q: What is something that the audience wouldn't know?
A: Well, from the audience it looks like there is a ton of space onstage. When you're up there? It's the opposite. The set is huge and it's so well done that it's still allowing our cast of 20 to be dancing up there all at one time.
That's a big testament to our set designer, and also to our cast. They've adapted really well to the different aspects and demands this particular set has put on them. I couldn't be more proud of them.
Q: What do you hope the audience feels after seeing this production?
A: I love the way this musical takes this story and then weaves the music throughout the performance. There are great songs that assist telling the story. The way the script and music and orchestra all infiltrate the story is amazing. The music really makes you feel - you can't help it with this show.
We've had some emotional moments in rehearsal. There are some power songs that have gotten to us. Our actors are doing that. We've taken the time to discover the heart of the show, and how the story is layered emotionally with the music. People should feel all sorts of things if they're truly present as they watch this show. ◼︎
If You Go:
What: "Mamma Mia!"
When: September 21 – October 7
Showtimes: September 21, 22, 27, 28, 29, October 4, 5, 6 at 7:30 p.m & September 23, 30, and October 7 at 2:30 p.m.
Where: Springer Opera House
Call: https://springeroperahouse.org or (706) 327-3688