During intermission at this week’s Stephens College production of “Mamma Mia!” Jennifer Hemphill cracks open a cola and eats a handful of potato chips.
After all, she has to maintain her voice for the big production numbers.
Hemphill is playing the role of Donna Sheridan, the mother of a soon-to-be bride whose wedding is in 48 hours.
It’s almost showtime.
‘Here I go again’
At the beginning of the semester, Stephens College announced that veteran actress Jennifer Hemphill would be its new coordinator of musical theater. Hemphill performed in the Broadway production of “Mamma Mia!” for three years, followed by a two-year national tour.
Now she’s starring in the Stephens production of the same show, finishing its run at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. There will also be a 2 p.m. matinee Saturday.
“(‘Mamma Mia!’) holds a special place in my heart,” Hemphill said between rehearsals last week.
“The show is about ownership of self,” she continued. “And, I think that, funnily enough — I know people think it’s about love and light, but I think it’s really about everybody staking a claim in themselves — to better themselves. It’s the message of ‘You do you, and that’s enough.’”
“It’s also just a lot of silliness and fun,” added Carl Herzog, who plays Bill, one of the three men who might be the father of the bride.
‘My, my, how can I resist you?’
“Mamma Mia!” premiered on Broadway on Oct. 18, 2001, one month and seven days after 9/11.
“It opened at a time when (New York) really needed levity and tourists really needed levity,” Hemphill said. “They needed an invitation to come and laugh during a time that was so heavy. And this show provided that. It brings joy.”
“Mamma Mia!” takes place during the 48 hours leading up to — and including — a wedding. Donna’s daughter, Sophie, wants her father to walk her up the aisle.
Sophie isn’t sure which of her mother’s three lovers is her biological father. Pretending to be Donna, she sends letters to the three men — Harry, Bill and Sam.
All three show up, and, although Sophie thought she would identify her father as soon as she laid eyes on him, she ends up more confused than ever.
She doesn’t know which one is her father, and neither does Donna.
Meanwhile, Donna is trying to make sure her daughter has the perfect wedding, like she never got.
“All these characters are dealing with heavy stuff, but in such a positive, fun way,” said Timuchin Aker, who plays Harry, one of the men in Donna’s life. “So it’s about, ‘How do we take in what’s dark about the world and channel it into something constructive and enjoyable and joyful and ... .’”
“And always find the hope,” Hemphill concluded.
The popular show had a long and prosperous run on Broadway, all while spawning touring productions and eventually two movies. According to Playbill, by the time “Mamma Mia!” closed on Broadway on Sept. 12, 2015, it had been performed 5,758 times.
“The show ran for so long that we have a huge family of ‘Mamma Mia!’ people. That will never go away, even though the show does, and the show has,” Hemphill said. “It just means a lot. I guess ‘Mamma Mia!’ created a family, and it’s about what is a family. That is really the connected tissue.”
Donna was a free spirit, traveling a romantic path from Paris to the fictitious Greek island of Kalokairi. Like Donna, Hemphill went wherever adventure took her.
“(Donna) wanted something out of the mundane.” Hemphill said. “That’s something she did early in her life and something that really resonates with me.”
Hemphill was born in Texas, although she spent at least 20 years in New York. Legend has it that she was able to match pitch before she could talk. If she heard a pitch, she could mimic it.
She received a bachelor’s degree in fine arts at the Tisch School of theArts at New York University and a master’s degree in fine arts in acting from Kent State University.
Toward the end of her Broadway run in “Mamma Mia!” she began teaching at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy. When “Mamma Mia!” closed, Hemphill decided she had found “a lot of joy and creativity” in teaching, so she stuck with it.
That led her to Stephens College.
‘Does it show again?’
According to the Princeton Review, Stephens College is listed as the ninth-best college theater program in the nation.
College productions are housed in the Macklanburg Playhouse, built after the Stephens College Playhouse burned down in 1980 with a donation by alumna Pauline Dwyer Macklanburg.
A plaque inside the Macklanburg Playhouse reads that the theater “bears testimony to the continuing vigor of a long and distinguished theatre tradition and to the devotion of students, faculty, alumnae and friends of the college.”
In “Mamma Mia!” Hemphill will be joined on stage by Joshua Clifton Powell as Sam. Powell appeared in the national tour of “Dirty Dancing” and the U.S. premiere of “A Little Princess.”
“I’m here because of Jennifer,” Powell said. “This is my third time working with her. Actually, during the very end of summer, she said, ‘Hey, this is happening. Would you be interested?’
“And I said, ‘Of course, I am. Any time I get to work with you is just the time of my life.’”
‘My, my, just how much I missed you?’
Hemphill invites the community to come see Saturday’s performance of “Mamma Mia!”
“If (you) haven’t been here in a while, or (have) never been here at all, it’s a really great show to experience and explore,” she said.
The event is sponsored by Heartland Real Estate, McDonald’s, State Farm, Joe Machens Dealerships, KFRU/1400 AM and Columbia Marketing Group.