In the current UK and International tour of MAMMA MIA!, Jena Pandya is playing Sophie Sheridan for her first leading character in a professional musical, with the show open at The Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury until 10th September, before heading to the Curve Theatre in Leicester, and the show is booking until April 2023. Last year, Jena made her professional debut in the world premiere of What’s New Pussycat? at the Birmingham Rep, and having trained at Bird College, Jena’s second year show of West Side Story, where she was cast as Anita, was unable to go ahead due to the pandemic in 2020, and in her third year, she was Dance Captain in Guys and Dolls. Talking with Jena, she told us about playing Sophie Sheridan on the MAMMA MIA! UK and International Tour, being in the cast of What’s New Pussycat? at Birmingham Rep last year and her training at Bird College.
You are currently touring with MAMMA MIA! as Sophie Sheridan, how has the tour been going so far?
So far, the tour has been fabulous. We have just passed the halfway mark and it’s going so quickly. Visiting so many places I’ve never been is brilliant.
Had you seen MAMMA MIA! before auditioning and how did you feel booking Sophie as your first leading character in a professional musical?
Oh yes! Like many people, MAMMA MIA! was a huge favourite and memorable part of my childhood. I think that’s why booking Sophie was so special. The film came out when I was eight and I remember my sister and I watching it on repeat. I was obsessed with Honey Honey in particular and can remember playing it on my iPod and acting out the scene… I was that kid. My parents took me to see the show on the back of my small obsession. So it’s safe to say I was familiar with the show.
Going into the audition, it all seemed too good to be true. Just getting the audition for a lead character was huge, and then for it to be Sophie made it so insane. I went into the audition process with the mindset that I was going to learn so much from the experience and tried not to fantasise about getting the job. It wasn’t until I got the call from my agent that I let myself completely freak out when I realised I was going to get to perform Honey Honey with full costume, set and with actual people. Definitely a dream come true.
What is Sophie like to play and how was it reading the script for the first time?
Playing Sophie is so joyous. She is such an ambitious lady who is full of spontaneous thoughts. I’m definitely more of an overthinker, so getting to play with her boldness every night is great fun. Reading the script was so enjoyable. It was a long time since I’d seen the stage show, so I loved being surprised by the songs which aren’t in the film. MAMMA MIA! was born on stage, so getting to read and appreciate the show and character from its origins was really important to me.
How is it performing the ABBA music and choreography and what’s it like seeing the audience response to the show?
The idea of singing and dancing to ABBA every night feels like a huge privilege. Not only because I was a mega fan, but also because I knew the music is so prevalent in so many people’s lives and across generations. We see that every night from the audience wherever we are on tour. There is a universal connection to the show and its music and I feel very lucky to witness the joyous impact it can have on people.
Is there anything you are enjoying most about being part of MAMMA MIA! and how are you finding your time working with the rest of the cast?
Where do I start! Well, aside from the music and wonderful audiences, the costumes are just fabulous! I still get giddy putting my green sparkly top on for the hen party. Also, going to work every day and being on a Greek sunny island always puts you in a great mood. However, the best thing is our company. It sounds cliché but it is 100% family vibes on this tour. I think having the dads and Dynamos creates a brilliant family dynamic, so when we are always on the road it still feels like home.
Do you have any stand-out highlights from touring with MAMMA MIA! and playing Sophie so far?
My top three highlights are:
My opening night. I was the only new cast member joining this tour back in January 2022, and due to COVID, it meant that I had to learn the staging by myself and only had a couple of run-throughs with the whole cast. The day of opening night, I had my first dress run in the afternoon before the show that evening. I was so nervous and wasn’t sure what was going happen out there, but the most bizarre sense of calmness came over me and my mind and body went into focus mode. It was the most incredible feeling finishing the show with my parents watching and nothing was a complete disaster!
Quite recently in Glasgow, as Sky and Sophie ran off stage after the wedding for their quick change, I slipped on my wedding dress and slid into the wings like a ninja. The funniest part was this venue had a raked stage so I was sliding all over the place and had to crawl myself back upstage to get changed. I looked like a corpse bride. One of my close friends and a MM! wiggie, Millie, witnessed the whole ordeal and we couldn’t stop laughing. I will admit, running out to sing I Have a Dream without laughing was one of the most difficult things I’ve done on stage. What a memory!
Finally, my first ‘show stop’ has to be up there. I had only heard about this scenario but getting to see the team come together, fix the problem and then the show going on in minutes was so exhilarating and I was buzzing that it finally happened!
Why would you recommend booking tickets to the musical and what are you looking forward to for continuing your run?
You can’t leave this show without a smile on your face and your arms waving in the air. I can’t wait to keep interacting with new audiences across the tour and exploring new places with the rest of the company. It’s going so quickly!!
Last year, you made your professional debut in What’s New Pussycat? at the Birmingham Rep, how was this?
It was surreal! The Rep will always have a special place in my heart as it was where I made my professional debut. It was the first time I was performing in such a big theatre and on a professional contract. There were a lot of graduates in the ensemble with me, so it was really special experiencing that together. It was unforgettable.
What was it like working on the world premiere of a musical and what do you remember from opening night?
That night was electric. So many emotions. We all felt such a responsibility to premiere this musical in the best way and bring the incredible creative team’s visions to light. We were all so proud of what we had created in the rehearsal room and believed in the show. There was such an excitement to finally show what we had been working so hard on.
What are some of your favourite memories from being in the original cast of What’s New Pussycat? and performing the Tom Jones soundtrack?
Being part of a new musical is challenging but so rewarding. As an ensemble member, I felt that I could be really creative and the process was very collaborative. Also, getting to see the show evolve from rehearsals to previews was so interesting for me, especially as it was my first job. Coming out of college I was so used to following set routines, but this was a completely different structure. Definitely felt like I was thrown in at the deep end at first, but it was the most valuable experience I’ve ever had.
I can’t listen to any Tom Jones song without feeling a lump in my throat. The music and arrangement in the show was unbelievable. It ignited me throughout the whole contract. I look back on that time as one of the best times in my life with my Pussycat family.
Was there anything that encouraged you to train at Bird College and how was your time being a student during the pandemic?
As soon as I auditioned at Bird I knew it was the place for me. Walking into the building, it felt like a safe and inviting place for someone who was moving all the way from Northumberland to London. Training was already difficult before the pandemic hit, but of course it has to be to get you ready for the real world. However, nothing could have prepared me for lockdown. Half of my training was affected by COVID. Zoom dance classes and singing lessons were a huge challenge and brought so much frustration and fear about the industry we were going into when we left college. But making it through that time and moving on from it made me feel I can overcome anything thrown at me, and for that I’m really grateful.
Can you tell us about some of the shows and workshops you performed in whilst training, which includes being Dance Captain in Guys and Dolls and playing Anita in West Side Story?
I had some awesome experiences whilst training. In second year, I was cast as Anita in West Side Story. Anita was such a dream role and I loved playing such a strong, feisty character. However, this was cut short due to COVID and the show couldn’t go ahead as planned in March 2020. But even getting to workshop in rehearsals and discover my Anita was great fun and rewarding. In my third year, I was Dance Captain for Guys and Dolls. I had never thought of myself in that role but I’m so grateful to Jo Morris and Dan Burton for seeing that in me and it really stretched my skills as a dancer and I loved taking more of a leadership role. It was definitely a major highlight of my Bird College journey.
Where does your love of acting and performing come from and how did you start?
As a tiny ten year old, I played Annie in my school play. My parents joke that they knew from that moment I was going to be on stage. I was pretty fearless as a child when it came to performing. I loved to sing and dance all the time to my sister’s dismay. It was never a question whether I was going to give this path a good go.
Do you have any favourite theatre shows to watch and which would you like to see that you haven’t done so as yet?
West Side Story is my ultimate favourite musical. The music, the saga, just all round perfection. In The Heights is another favourite of mine, as well as Sweet Charity. Being on tour means I don’t get to see many shows, so there are SO MANY on my list. I really want to see Life of Pi and Prima Facie – anything with Jodie Comer is a yes from me.
How do you like to spend your time away from your career?
Long walks away from my phone and spending time with family and friends. One of my hobbies is videography and editing. So finding time to work on mini projects is the best pastime.
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