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some text Gracie Gilbert, a Chattanooga based actress, plays "Sophie" in the musical "Mamma Mia" at the Colonade, in Ringgold, Ga., this weekend. Submitted photo by Hannah Morgan

It's hard to be a dancing queen when you've got a bum foot.

Just ask Gracie Gilbert.

The 21-year-old, Chattanooga-based actress was recovering from foot surgery when she auditioned for the part of Sophie in the Colonnade Center production of the musical "Mamma Mia!"

The show runs through Sunday at the Ringgold, Georgia, venue, and includes the disco-era hit "Dancing Queen" as a show-stopping musical number.

Since singing and dancing to the music of the Swedish pop group ABBA is a huge part of the role, Gilbert, the daughter of WRCB-TV anchor Cindy Sexton and Gil Gilbert, submitted videos of herself dancing at a country and western music review at Hersheypark in Hershey, Pennsylvania, as part of her "Mamma Mia!" audition.

She got the part.

Gilbert had surgery May 7 to relieve pain in her left foot that had lingered since high school. Before the surgery to remove a damaged sesamoid bone in her foot, the high-energy actress said, she took Aleve and tried to power through dance performances.

Rushing her recovery, she re-injured her foot and had to use a knee scooter and a lower-leg boot for several months, she said. Undaunted, she put a bicycle bell on her scooter and zipped around Gold's Gym, where she is working toward becoming a personal trainer.

There were points in her recovery when she didn't know if she would ever make it back to the stage, Gilbert said.

"It was really scary," she said. "I had a friend ask me what my back-up plan was. I just started crying. I didn't want to have a back-up plan. This is what I do. This is what I love."

some text Photo by Shelia Cannon/Gracie Gilbert (right) rehearses the part of Sophie in "Mamma Mia!" with Joseph Watts (Sky). The musical continues this weekend at the Colonade in Ringgold, Ga.

IF YOU GO

What: “Mamma Mia!”

Where: The Colonnade, 264 Catoosa Circle, Ringgold, Ga.

When: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 20-21; 2:30 p.m. Sept. 22

Admission: $13, $15, $17

For more information: 706-935-9000

Gilbert said there are videos of her singing and dancing when she was 3 years old. By fifth grade, she was onstage doing dramatic readings of works by children's author Shel Silverstein.

A graduate of Chattanooga High School Center for Creative Arts and the Professional Actors Training Program at Chattanooga State, her credits also include turns as Rapunzel in "Into the Woods" and the Ghost of Christmas Past in "A Christmas Carol."

In "Mamma Mia!" Gilbert plays 2o-year-old, bride-to-be Sophie, who plots to gather three of her mother, Donna's, old lovers in an attempt to discover which one is her biological father.

Hijinks ensue.

Gilbert was a natural for the part of Sophie. It helps that she is a fan of 1970s pop music and grew up listening to ABBA songs, which comprise the musical book for "Mamma Mia!"

"[WRCB-TV anchor/reporter] David Carroll made me a CD when I was little of all these old songs," Gilbert said. "I knew a lot of the music already."

Eventually, Gilbert said she hopes to try acting in New York, although she would prefer to get a few more years of experience before she tests the waters in the Big Apple.

She said she hopes to land a job as an actor/singer on a cruise ship or to work in regional theater for a time with the goal of earning an Actors' Equity Association card before she seeks a job on Broadway.

"There are thousands of blue-eyed girls who look like me, who sound like me," she said.

Still, people in the know say the "Mamma Mia!" production at the Colonnade is first rate and showcases Gilbert's professional-level skills.

"The feedback from everyone has been so much better than I ever imagined," Gilbert said. "I was worried that it wasn't going to be my strongest work. I was worried about my foot. I was worried that I had lost the groove of doing it."

Not to worry. The reviews have been excellent.

Meanwhile, there's one ABBA lyric Gilbert would no doubt like to share with casting directors everywhere: "Honey, I'm still free, take a chance on me."

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645.

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