When she lived in Boston, Chelsea Williams would get on a bus at South Station at midnight, arrive in New York around 5 a.m. and stand in line for auditions to Broadway shows, regional theater and traveling productions.
Next week, she’ll arrive in Portland on a much nicer motor coach than the ones she rode to New York. Williams, who grew up in Windham and graduated from Windham High School in 2008, plays the lead role of Sophie in the national tour of the cult hit musical “Mamma Mia!” Portland Ovations presents the musical Wednesday and Thursday, May 13 and 14, at Merrill Auditorium.
“The auditions for ‘Mamma Mia!’ were during a time when I would put my hands on anything I could,” she said in a phone interview. “I had never seen the show, but they had an open call on a day I could make it in.”
She got called back several times over seven months before being cast. She joined the tour in August 2013 and will have played Sophie close to 500 times before her contract is up in July. After that, she’ll move to New York to live full time, hoping her success with “Mamma Mia!” leads to more work.
“This is the biggest professional gig I have had to date,” she said. “I have become a part of such a huge community. ‘Mamma Mia!’ is a cult hit. It’s still on Broadway now, and people recognize the show because of the movie and the show in New York. It’s like being part of a rock concert. People go absolutely insane for it.”
“Mamma Mia!” uses the songs of the pop band ABBA to tell the story of Sophie’s wedding and her desire to have her father walk her down the aisle. But she doesn’t know who he is.
She reads her mom’s diaries, narrows the field of possible fathers to three and invites them all to her wedding. The musical began in 1999, and a movie starring Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan and Colin Firth followed in 2008. Songs include “Dancing Queen,” “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” and “Take a Chance on Me.”
Williams, the daughter of Denise and Michael Williams, was a latecomer to theater. Growing up in Windham, she played soccer and softball. When her mom asked if she wanted to audition for a community theater production, Williams declined. She enjoyed sports but didn’t feel comfortable on stage.
That began to shift in high school. She joined the Windham Chamber Singers, directed by Ray Nickerson, and sang all four years. Joining the chamber singers was the most important decision of her high school years, she said, because it allowed her to tap her innate creativity.
She shifted her priorities away from sports, though she still ran track and field – and threw the javelin – because it allowed more flexibility in her schedule.
But music and theater became her priority. She did a Lake Region Community Theater production of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” and joined the entertainment team at Point Sebago Resort. That summer job was her first paid theater work.
Her junior year, she joined her high school’s cast of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and became president of the chamber singers.
Acting helped her overcome her stage fright.
“It gave me something to do on stage, I think. It has something to do with the nervous energy I am feeling. I find that acting is such hard work, it’s enough of a distraction,” she said.
She enrolled at Emerson College in Boston, earning a bachelor’s degree in musical theater. She worked with the Lyric Stage Company of Boston, the Gloucester Stage Company, the Berkshire Theatre Group and other regional theater companies while living in Boston.
And then along came “Mamma Mia!” Among other things, “Mamma Mia!” gives her the chance to perform at Merrill Auditorium. She’s never sung there. It’s a good thing the theater is so large, she said. Half of Windham is coming to the shows.
“They started buying tickets as soon as they went on sale,” Williams said. “I remember being home for a Labor Day family reunion, and everyone had tickets — my parents, my grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins, and great-aunts and uncles and second cousins, and people I haven’t heard from in years. It’s going to be a lot of fun. I can’t wait to get home.”