The last time Kristin Wetherington set foot on the ECU stage, she was an independent actress in her twenties, fresh out of college and reveling in the fact that she’d had the chance to sing and dance alongside professional cast members in a Summer Theater production of “Free From All Attachments.” More than 15 years later, the shoe is on the other foot as the New York-based actress and mom returns to her alma mater to star in “Mamma Mia!”
But the musical, which opens Wednesday, is more than Wetherington’s return to the McGinnis Theater. This is ECU Summer Theater’s first performance since the curtain closed a decade ago.
“I love being back here; I’m really grateful,” the Greenville native said. “It’s still a bit surreal, but it happened.”
The summer theater revival, which coincides with the ECU/Loessin Playhouse’s 60th anniversary, was made possible through a crowdfunding campaign launched in 2021. film actress Emily Procter and Broadway veteran Jeremy Woodard contributed $30,000 to the goal.
“It’s not just the actors,” said “Mamma Mia!” Artistic director producer Jayme Host. “A lot of alums got together and donated.”
Host has heard calls for the return of the popular series since becoming director of the School of Theater and Dance in 2017.
“The first day I set foot on campus, someone said to me, ‘So this is your mission? Will you be bringing back the summer theater? “, Did she say. “Every week I get an email or a phone call where someone says, ‘We liked it so much. “”
The relationship between the Summer Theater and the Greenville community dates back to 1964, a year after the drama department was established under Edgar Loessin. As the then East Carolina College became the fifth college in the nation to sponsor a professional summer theater, the event counted governors and state officials among its audience and received a grant from the General Assembly. But due to the recession, the season, which often included three or more performances, was reduced to a single show in 2009. After a 2011 season in which the summer theater died out, the 2012 series s held at other locations in addition to McGinnis, including theaters in New Bern, Goldsboro and Washington, NC
Host said that while the donors have been generous, she does not anticipate Summer Theater becoming a series again, due to the loss of state funding. Due to the program’s need to be self-sustaining, she expects to be able to produce biennial shows, spending the year in between raising funds for the next performance.
“Mom Mia!” Director Tommi Galaska has been part of the Summer Theater since she was cast in “Robber Bridegroom” as a student in 1985. When she joined the faculty at ECU in 1999, she was a choreographer for the production from the Summer Theater of “Ain’t Misbehavin'”. before co-directing “A Chorus Line” (2003) and directing “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” in 2004.
Although the associate theater and dance professor missed being part of the Summer Theater during her 10-year absence, she was surprised to hear so many other people in Greenville expressing a similar sentiment.
“I had a lot of people super excited about it,” she said. “I didn’t realize how much it meant to people in the community.
Written by British playwright Catherine Johnson and based on the songs by ABBA, “Mamma Mia!” tells the story of Sophie, a young woman who believes she needs her father to make her marriage run smoothly. But she has no idea who he is.
The 21-member cast includes ECU junior Casey Wortham as Sophie Sheridan, who secretly invites three paternal possibilities to a small Greek island for her wedding because her mother, a former pop singer, refuses to reveal her identity.
“She has this big dream of a man who is her father figure giving her to his wedding,” Wortham said.
Before being cast in ECU/Loessin productions including “The Visit” and “Head Over Heels,” the Garner native made her professional debut in the North Carolina Theater’s 2019 production of “West Side Story” as she was still in high school.
“I’ve always enjoyed working with people older than me,” she says. “Doing a professional show with peers is such an amazing experience.”
The cast includes many ECU actors, including students Andrew Goins (“Pippin”) and Jessica Balton (“Songs for a New World”) and recent graduates Keagan Kermode (“Romeo and Juliet”) and Nazmokeem Harvey ( “Ghost the Musical”). “Mom Mia!” features them on stage alongside more seasoned actors, including Kole McKinley, a 2017 ECU graduate with a degree in musical theater performance, and musical theater teacher Jessica Doyle-Mekkes. The cast also includes professional members of the Actors’ Equity Association, including Wetherington, who plays Tanya, and Lillie Eliza Thomas as mother of the bride, Donna, who was played by Meryl Streep in the 2008 film version.
Wake Forest’s assistant choreographer Emily Phoebus saw stage and film versions of “Mamma Mia!” But the musical wasn’t necessarily his introduction to ABBA music.
“Everyone knows (the song) ‘Dancing Queen.’ My extended family loved ABBA and played it all the time,” she said with a laugh.
Phoebus, who graduated from ECU in May with a degree in musical theater with credits such as ‘Ghost the Musical’, ‘Pippin’ and ‘The Visit’, welcomed the chance to work with professional actors at the McGinnis Theater before moving on. continue his career.
“They know comedy, they’re good at picking their timing, and they’re good at picking how they deliver the lines,” she said. “It’s really fun to watch this and take the opportunity to get some professional advice before you go out on the pitch.”
Wetherington, who got her start with the local Smiles and Frowns Playhouse before performing in shows at DH Conley High School, remembers when she played the role as a student. Although his undergraduate years at ECU offered him many opportunities to be on stage in productions such as “As You Like It” and “The Importance of Being Earnest”, Summer Theater provided him with his first salary. professional.
“It was exciting,” she said. “You have to work alongside real professionals. You also work at such a fast pace. It was really valuable as a student to get that experience because that’s what most rehearsal schedules look like in the real world.
Last fall, when she learned of the effort to bring back the ECU Summer Theater, Wetherington made a promotional video to encourage donations. She had no idea at the time that college would achieve its goal, let alone put on a musical that suited her abilities or her schedule, which now includes caring for her 2-year-old daughter. But the prospect of spending four weeks with his family in Greenville and working with Galaska, his former jazz teacher, persuaded Wetherington to submit a video audition.
“I loved my time at ECU,” she said. “The training was the best of the best, and I see it still is. Now I’m kinda on the other side of where these kids are dancing around in circles around me. It’s just kinda wild d to be on the other side.
Familiar sites, such as the ballet bar where she did morning warm-ups in college, take Wetherington back to when she was in her 20s, though a lot has happened since then. She later earned a Masters of Fine Arts in Acting from Harvard University and moved to New York City, where she now lives and has been featured in several Off-Broadway as well as regional productions.
“Mom Mia!” isn’t just Wetherington bis ECU; this is her first performance on any stage in over two years. She performed with a USO Show Troupe in 2019 before COVID-19 and maternity leave put her career on hold.
“It was also very special because my parents still live here,” Wetherington said. “To be able to come home and have your parents cook dinner, I feel like I’m 20 again. But this time I’m enjoying it a little more.
“I am happy that the summer theater is back; it’s just a joy,” she says. “I feel really lucky to be able to have this experience in my hometown and my alma mater. I don’t know any professional actor who can have this experience.
“Mom Mia!” will be presented at 7:30 p.m. June 22-25, with additional matinee performances at 2 p.m. June 25-26 at the McGinnis Theater on campus. Tickets are $35 for general public, $30 for older adults, and $25 for ECU students and youth. Visit tickets.ecu.edu or call 328-4788.