Dancing Queens

Dancing Queens

‘Mamma Mia’ cast having the time of their lives


Caity Church. Michael Myers. Dennis Laing. John Bass. Erin Hagar. Anna Knight. Shiloh Jones. Mary Larkin Furlow. Lexie Edmunds. If you are a fan of theater in Northwest Arkansas, the new production of “Mamma Mia” offers an embarrassment of riches — all directed by the enthusiastic hand of Pilot Arts founder Missy Gipson.

She’s an actor’s director, says John Bass, an Arkansas Public Theatre veteran who plays one of Sophie’s possible dads. “She lets us try things, figure things out. Oh, she has a vision. But we all collaborate to create it.”

Photo courtesy Emily Allen
Built around the music of Abba, “Mamma Mia” reunites three college friends who were once Donna and the Dynamos. The Pilot Arts production stars Caity Church, center, as Donna; Erin Hagar, left, as Rosie; and Shiloh Jones, right, as Tanya.

The jukebox musical — based on the songs of ’70s band Abba — is an ambitious choice for a community theater company just finishing its first season. It has a cast of 35, plus 12 people in the crew and band, and a unique performance space — the Arkansas Air & Military Museum in Fayetteville. But when Gipson saw the rights to “Mamma Mia” open up, she was “chomping at the bit.”

“I’ve always wanted to do this show,” she says with her trademark energy. “I saw the movie when I was pregnant with my first child, and I’ve loved it ever since. Leaving that theater, it just felt so great to be alive! It’s a celebration of resilience for Donna, proof that you can do hard things — like raise a daughter by yourself — and make them wonderful. I was a little … maybe ‘apprehensive’ is the right word, about doing it, because it’s an iconic show, but then I was able to put together this cast! And I couldn’t be happier.”

Gipson says she needed “a woman with a strong sense of self” to play Donna, former wild child but now the mother of the bride and architect of her own life as a successful businesswoman. She found her in another APT veteran, Caity Church — but in the most unusual of circumstances. Church auditioned via Skype from a family vacation at Disney World.

“I saw the previous shows that Pilot produced, and I had heard about the process being very actor-friendly, organic and fluid,” says Church, who in real life is a teacher. “Then when Pilot announced they’d be producing ‘Mamma Mia’ this year, I couldn’t think of a good reason not to audition. I’ve wanted to play the role of Donna since before I was old enough to want such a role. I’m grateful every day that I made the decision to go for it, and that Missy took a chance on me!”

Church has played a raft of headlining roles, starting at APT as Sandy in “Grease” nearly 20 years ago.

“I was a theater minor at the University of Arkansas, so I took a few classes there. But really most of my ‘training’ is from time on the stage,” she says. “Last October, I played Janet in ‘The Rocky Horror Show’ at APT. That’s the most recent, but I think the more memorable roles (other than that one) would be Roxie in ‘Chicago’ in 2012 and ‘Peter Pan’ in 2003. I still hear ‘I remember you as Peter, flying into the audience’ from people who saw it.

“There’s something to be said about life experience, too,” she adds. “It helps to create a sense of empathy and a connection with characters who share the same experiences.”

Even with Church on board, Gipson still wasn’t finished casting. She had selected an Equity stage manager to play Bill — the most genuine of Sophie’s dads — only to find out he’d have to have a contract as an Equity actor. Enter John Bass, who says audiences might remember him as Sir Lancelot the Homicidally Brave, Tim the Enchanter, the Head Knight who says “Ni” and the French Taunter in “Spamalot” at APT in 2016.

“I came on a week or two behind and had to catch up quickly, but everyone gave me time and encouragement to come fully into the fold, and I’ve loved every minute of it,” he says.

“Honestly, the best part has been rehearsal,” says Erin Hagar, who plays Donna’s friend Rosie. “Letting loose, experimenting with the character, and simply having some fun.”

“As women, I think we can all relate to those deep, embedded friendships,” says Shiloh Jones, who plays Tanya. “The type of friendships you simply pick up where you left off after many years, miles or both.”

“It is crazy that we have JUST met, but I do feel like I have known them for years,” adds Hagar of Church and Jones. “I believe we have the same drive for performance and are strong, supportive women. We want to see each other succeed and be the best versions of these characters.”



‘Mamma Mia’

WHEN — 7 p.m. Nov. 14-16; 2 & 7 p.m. Nov. 17; 2 p.m. Nov. 18

WHERE — Arkansas Air & Military Museum in Fayetteville

COST — $12-$30

INFO — pilotarts.org

Categories: Theater