`Mamma Mia!' brings a hometown girl home

Tiffani Barbour began performing here at age 3

May 20, 2004|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Tiffani Barbour's mother first noticed her daughter's talent and flair for the spotlight when the little girl was 3 years old.

"She just liked performing - wherever - as long as there was a crowd and people to watch," says Barbour's mother, Charlene D. Williamson.

Barbour still gets the same thrill in front of an audience; she calls it "performance butterflies - your head gets swelled a little bit and you feel like you're going to lose a little air, but it's a rush." Now, however, that thrill comes from playing a supporting role in the touring production of Mamma Mia!, which is booked through May 30 at the Hippodrome Theatre.

In the musical, Barbour portrays Ali, one of the best friends of a bride-to-be who is trying to learn the identity of her father. The bride has narrowed the search down to three possibilities and has invited all three to her wedding. When the bride says she hopes her dad will walk her down the aisle, Ali's response - "Let's just hope it's a wide aisle" - gets the show's first big laugh.

"I can play with that line a lot," Barbour says. "Sometimes I'll hold out the `wide' a little longer, [change] the inflections of the line, it still gets the laugh."

Barbour has been touring in Mamma Mia! for 19 months. When she told her mother about the job, "She said, `You have to stay until Baltimore,'" Barbour says. That became her goal, and when she stepped out on the Hippodrome stage last week, she made her professional debut in her hometown.

Not that Baltimoreans didn't have chances to see Barbour perform locally before that. The 30-year-old actress has been singing, dancing and acting around town since she was 3 and began studying tap and ballet at Jeanette's School of the Dance in Glen Burnie. The same year, the precocious youngster was singing in the choir at Union Memorial United Methodist Church on Harlem Avenue.

At age 9, she auditioned for the Arena Players Youtheatre. Catherine B. Orange, director of the Youtheatre, recalls that the program wasn't taking children younger than 13 at the time. But Orange, who was then assistant director, says that when director Gloria Barnes saw Barbour's audition, "She said, `We've got to take her. We've just got to take her.'"

A year later, after the girl cast as the young Bessie Smith dropped out of Arena Players' adult production of Little Miss Dreamer, Barbour learned the role in a week. Although she describes the experience as "nerve-racking," Barbour has only the fondest memories of her years with the Youtheatre, where she remained a member throughout high school, even returning to help out during college.

"When I was a kid, my friends were down there, and we never wanted to leave," she says. "A Saturday would be the entire day, into the night, maybe helping out with some of the adult shows. They'd be kicking us out of there."

Meanwhile, the 1991 graduate of Garrison Forest School was also performing in school plays and in her senior year was head of the student singing group, the Ragged Robins. After graduation, Barbour entered the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. She earned membership in Actors' Equity, the professional union, her sophomore year when she appeared in a hip-hop musical called Bobos at Philadelphia's American Music Theater Festival.

In her senior year, she was cast in a Philadelphia production of the Fats Waller revue Ain't Misbehavin' and dropped out of college a semester short of graduation. "I was ready to go," she says.

Although there have been a few lulls since then, Barbour has had a wide-ranging career, both geographically (she toured Europe in the musical Fame) and in terms of breadth of experience (she played a student on two episodes of CBS' The Education of Max Bickford). To help fill in the occasional downtime, she and a college friend and several of his buddies formed a production company in New York, Threeleggedtur tle.com.

Barbour first auditioned for Mamma Mia! four years ago in Los Angeles. It was "a pretty rough audition," she says. "I wasn't prepared that well." A year later, however, when she was living in New York, she was called to audition again. And that time, she says, "I got very close." Another 16 months passed, however, before she was offered the role of Ali.

So far, her mother has traveled to three states to see the show, and of course, she was at the Hippodrome on opening night. A teacher at Walbrook High School, Williamson will see Mamma Mia! again on May 27 with 20 co-workers. Arena Players' Orange will also be making her second trip to the Hippodrome next week.

Both women say Barbour and her character, Ali, share the same "bubbling" personality. Barbour agrees that she's "pretty close" to her character, but she adds, "She's a little bit more sassy than me."

Though Barbour hopes to do more television work, she says, "I love the hands-on audience reaction of theater."

She's longed to be on Broadway since she was a little girl, and she considers Mamma Mia! the realization of that goal. "It is Broadway - just a different address," Barbour says. "We bring Broadway to the people."

Show times for Mamma Mia! at the Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N. Eutaw St., are 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 6:30 p.m. Sundays; matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and 1 p.m. Sundays, through May 30. Tickets are $34-$79. Call 410-547-SEAT.

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