A red-hot `Mamma' role


July 07, 2005|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Britt Shubow has now sung "Dancing Queen" more than 2,000 times.

She's not some crazed ABBA fan. She's a member of the Broadway cast of the ABBA musical, Mamma Mia!

For most of her three-plus years with the show, she's been in the chorus. But for six performances last Thursday through Sunday, Shubow played the lead role of Sophie, a young bride-to-be eager to learn the identity of her father.

Last weekend wasn't the first time Shubow, a 1998 graduate of Baltimore County's Carver Center for Arts and Technology, has played Sophie. But it did mark the most consecutive performances for the native Baltimorean.

"It was a huge learning experience. Mostly, I had to learn to trust myself because there are so many times when I've been looking over the script and blocking," she said earlier this week. "This was the first time I didn't have to look back at my lines, that I didn't have to think over where I was going."

Shubow was originally hired as a "swing" - an actor who understudies members of the chorus - in Mamma Mia! a month before getting her undergraduate degree from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts in 2002. Five months later, she became a full-time member of the chorus. She began understudying the role of Sophie last fall.

Mamma Mia! is partly Sophie's coming-of-age tale, and in that respect Shubow, 25, felt a kinship with the character. "She wants to know who she is. Even doing this part, I'm learning about who I am and growing up and taking on responsibility and learning how to carry a show, and learning how to spend time with my family, who's in town, and take care of myself."

Shubow felt another parallel with Sophie over the weekend as well. Not only did her parents - Charles, an administrative judge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and Lisa, a physical-education teacher at Baltimore City's Claremont School - attend all six performances, but this was the first time they met her steady beau.

"There was a lot going on," she says. "There were nerves everywhere." But, she adds, "I think we all had a wonderful time."

`Kathy & Mo Show'

In the mid-1980s, a pair of neophyte performers named Kathy Najimy and Mo Gaffney put together a two-person show called The Kathy & Mo Show. A surprise West Coast hit, it moved to off-Broadway and from there, as quirks would have it, to Baltimore's Theatre Project.

Since then, both women have gone on to screen careers (Najimy starred in both Sister Act movies, and Gaffney has had a recurring role on That '70s Show). The Kathy & Mo Show, meanwhile, has developed a life of its own, performed by others.

At the Maryland Arts Festival, those others are Gina Deavers and Samantha Fitschen, relative newcomers to this area. In the course of the show, they play everything from angels to an inebriated good ol' boy, Shakespearean actors, a prostitute, schoolgirls and a pair of middle-aged matrons. But talented though their role-shifting may be, it can't salvage this highly uneven evening.

When Gaffney and Najimy performed the show, the matrons, Madeleine and Sylvia, were the best characters, and as portrayed by Fitschen and Deavers, they still are. Getting their first taste of women's studies, they exude joy at every eye-opening experience. And, Deavers' accent - not unlike that of Mike Myers on the old Saturday Night Live "Coffee Talk" skit - is a hoot.

But not everything is this funny or polished - in terms of the material or performances. For example, each act opens with the performers portraying angels. In the first segment, the angels decide that women will experience pain when giving birth - an unlikely choice for female angels, especially in a show with a strong feminist slant.

In a later sketch, Fitschen and Deavers play irreverent, heartless sisters greeting mourners after their grandmother's funeral. The characters' disrespectful attitudes may explain the walkouts at the performance I attended. But the show as a whole has enough misfires to make an audience restless.

Director Michael Stebbins' production picks up some speed and brightness after intermission. And the show does have something to say: The importance of acceptance is a recurring theme. Delivered primarily by Fitschen in various guises, it's a message suffused with warmth, but not quite enough to allow you to accept the production's flaws.

The Kathy & Mo Show: Parallel Lives is being performed at Towson University's Auburn House Pavilion, Osler and Cross Campus drives. Show times are 7:30 p.m. July 14 and 17, and 8 p.m. Saturday and July 16. Tickets are $18. Call 410-704-2787.

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