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'Mamma Mia!' heads to Charleston

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The music of ABBA takes center stage on Friday night as Broadway in Charleston brings the popular musical "Mamma Mia!" to town. More than two dozen hits from the Swedish group are woven into a story about a young bride who tries to discover the identity of her father on the eve of her wedding so that he may walk her down the aisle.
Courtesy photo
Christian Whelan
WANT TO GO?"Mamma Mia!"Presented by Broadway in CharlestonWHERE: Clay CenterWHEN: 8 p.m. FridayTICKETS: $47.25 and $68.50INFO: 304-561-3570 or CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Riding around on a bus from city to city, performing for only a night or two at one theater before moving on to the next, a touring actor never knows what to expect when he opens his dressing room.Shows like "Mamma Mia!," which comes to the Clay Center Friday, often follow rowdier entertainment: rock concerts, for example, and trashing dressing rooms is almost a rite of passage for rock stars. Actor Christian Whelan has seen that kind of thing, but in Ottawa, he found something new: water."There was some sort of plumbing problem," he explained.Pipes burst and water drenched his dressing station, ruining his makeup and some music the producers of "Mamma Mia!" had set aside for him.Whelan is new to the tour and still adjusting to performing on the road again. About a month ago, he joined the "Mamma Mia!" cast as Sam Carmichael, one of a young bride's three potential fathers. (The bride, Sophie, wants to find her father to walk her down the aisle.) Before he joined the musical, which is based around the music of ABBA, Whelan played King Triton in the first regional production of "Disney's The Little Mermaid" in Utah. He considers himself fortunate to be able to go from one job to the next.He said, "I'm pretty proud of the fact that I haven't had to take a side job for 18 years."Whelan has been in show business for a long time --26 years professionally, though he's been acting since he was a kid.One of his first jobs was as in the original "Bad News Bears" movie, starring Walter Matthau. He was a baseball player on an opposing team.
In his teens, Whelan sang with The Young Americans, a California show choir that was the first show choir to mix choreography with singing. The group performed at theme parks across the country, toured the world and appeared on several television shows in the 1970s.Whelan's big break, however, came in high school. The casting director for "General Hospital" watched him in a school production of "Jesus Christ Superstar," liked what he saw and cast him for the daytime drama.
"I was booked for a week, got my Screen Actors Guild card and I was off to the races," he said.Now, with "Mamma Mia!," Whelan is back in high school -- sort of. He said he listened to ABBA in those days."I'd say I was a fan," he said. "They were one of the eight-track tapes I had in my car, along with Supertramp, I think."ABBA was a sensation, he said. Its music was fresh and new and catchy. That it survived the 1970s, he thought, wasn't really that big of a surprise. There are layers to the music.
"In high school, you don't necessarily think about the musical intricacies or the cool harmonies."Still, even with all of the intricacies of the music, he never imagined anyone would turn it into a musical."But I have to say it's pretty thrilling."Joining the touring production came out of the blue for Whelan. With only a couple weeks left on his contract for "The Little Mermaid," he happened across an item in the theater trade papers about an actor with "Mamma Mia!" going on medical leave. He called his agent and had him check on the opening."He asked me if I wanted him to get me an appointment for an audition."Whelan told him, emphatically, yes.Of course, getting back to New York for an audition while he was in the middle of a show in Utah wasn't easy, but he managed to cobble together a 30-hour window where he could get away."I flew to New York, spent the night, got up, went to the office and auditioned for 10 minutes then hopped in a cab and flew back to Las Vegas," he said. "From there, I drove three hours and made the curtain in Utah."Management for "Mamma Mia!" called the next morning and offered him the job."I was pretty flattered," Whelan said. "They'd just had open calls in New York and L.A."He feels pretty good to be where he is now, traveling again. He's having a great time with "Mamma Mia!," but of course, he's always looking toward the next gig.Whelan said, "I joke and say that I spend 50 percent of my time obsessing over finding work and the other 50 percent obsessing over what I can do to never have to work again."Reach Bill Lynch at or 304-348-5195.
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