Here we go again

Mamma Mia (Michael Coppel, Louise Withers and Linda Bewick)

QPAC, Lyric Theatre

December 26 2017 – February 4 2018

“Mamma Mia” opening night means a wash of blue hues … from transformation of the usually red carpet of media wall arrivals to Linda Pewick’s on-stage setting of a postcard perfect Greek tavern. It’s a far from melancholy feel though; the light-hearted musical comedy is as fabulously fun as ever in its celebration of love, laughter and friendship.

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‘Buildings are like children; you always recognise your own’ architect Sam Carmichael (Ian Stenlake) coincidentally comments when he arrives to the tavern on the idly Mediterranean island of Kalokairi. Along with Harry Bright (Phillip Lowe) and Bill Austen (Josef Ber), he has been invited to the wedding of free-spirited Sophie Sheridan (Brisbane’s own Sarah Morrison) and her fiancé Sky (Stephen Mahy) by the bride-to-be, who wants her father to walk her down the aisle. The problem is, even after reading her mother’s diary, she has no idea which of the three men he might be. Writer Catherine Johnson’s storyline is simple enough, but of course things don’t go exactly to plan as the men are reunited with Sophie’s single-mother Donna (Natalie O’Donnell), two decades after last visiting the island.

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“Mamma Mia” is not just one of the first jukebox musicals, but a global phenomenon thanks to its soundtrack of ABBA hits. Dialogue segues naturally into the songs and only minor lyric changes are needed to integrate them into the narrative. (Although the stylised Act Two opening ‘Under Attack’, which sees Sophie having a nightmare, involving her three possible fathers all fighting for the right to walk her down the aisle, although excellent, jars with the feel of the rest of the show).

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A brilliant band under musical director Michael Azzopardi brings vitality to the ABBA tunes. Although slower songs like Donna and Harry’s nostalgic ‘Our Last Summer’ reminiscence about their long-ago fling are beautiful, it is the upbeat numbers that serve as crowd favourites, with audience members clapping along as Donna’s carefree friend Rosie (Alicia Gardiner) cheekily implores Bill to ‘Take a Chance on Me’ and bopping in-seat during a fun and flirty ‘Does Your Mother Know’, during which Donna’s other visiting best friend, the thrice divorced and now affluent Tanya rebuffs the advances of  the much younger tavern worker Pepper (Sam Hooper). And Act One’s closing disco-esque dance number ‘Voulez Vous’ is a sensational showcase of the ensemble’s energy. Under Gary Young’s smooth direction, new and fun choreography ensures that that even those who have seen the show in its previous manifestations, will be satisfied with its fresh and joyful energy.

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What is particularly wonderful is the manner in which the show celebrates the talent of its trio of older actresses, Natalie O’Donnell, Alicia Gardiner and Jayde Westaby. The former Donna and the Dynamos girl group of long-term best friends enliven every scene in which they appear together. Tanya and Rosie’s ‘Chiquitita’ ask of what’s wrong and attempt to cheer up a crying Donna is absolutely hilarious, with Gardiner (best known to Australian audiences for her role as nurse Kim Akerholt in the award-winning series “Offspring”) bringing plenty of personality to the sassy role. And when they try and convince Donna that she can still be the girl she once was in ‘Dancing Queen’ the result is absolutely delightful.

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O’Donnell, who herself played the role of Sophie in the first Australian touring production in 2001, brings some bitterness but also hearty determination to the stoic single mother Donna. Her ‘The Winner Takes It All’ is outstanding, not just vocally but in the emotion that is brought to its narrative significance of her admission to Sam that he broke her heart. Morrison is marvellous as the young, optimistic Sophie, sharing a convincing chemistry with on-stage mother O’Donnell, as evidenced particularly in their affection during ‘Slipping Through My Fingers’ where Donna sings to Sophie about her regret at how quickly her daughter is growing up,, as she dresses Sophie for her wedding. And as the unsuspecting fathers, Carmichael, Lowe and Ber are all also superb.

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“Mamma Mia” shows that not everything has to be of “Wicked” scale to be wonderful. Indeed, what this show is most about is its music and what makes this production so successful is its celebration of not just this, but all things ABBA in a performance that warns of its ‘strobe lighting, theatrical haze, spandex and loud music’. The result is a fabulous night out for audiences of all ages. And when ‘Super Trouper’ costumes are revisited in the curtain call with full company renditions of ‘Dancing Queen’ and ‘Waterloo’, and you get the chance to jump up, it will not just be in ovation but in the mood for dance and celebration of having the time of your life.

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Swedish celebrations

Thank You for the Music – an ABBA Celebration (QPAC Choir)

QPAC, Concert Hall

June 6

If ABBA ever was to reform, (and chance are “absolutely zero” according to Bjorn Ulvaeus) down under would be top of the list on their comeback trail. Australia was, as it seems, the first country that took ABBA to heart. And evidently, the love affair still lingers, forty years after the ‘70s super pop group first toured the country, visiting every state capital except Brisbane… well, at least for those in attendance at the QPAC Choir’s annual showcase ‘Thank You for the Music – an Abba Celebration” trip down memory lane to mark the anniversary of that landmark live concert tour.

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QAPC choirmaster and super ABBA freak Timothy Sherlock not only looks the part in bedazzled jacket, but conveys an infectious energy. And the 140-voice QPAC choir more than rises to the occasion, responding to the crowd’s ‘We Want ABBA’ introduction chants and glowstick punctuation with performance of a selection of some of the most popular ABBA songs, as part of the Queensland Cabaret Festival. Indeed, this is a show full of familiar tunes, each remembered as favourite until the next number in the setlist starts playing. And seeing the audience’s collective reactions upon recognition of each starting medley makes for a night of many shared joys.

‘Mamma Mia’ kicks off the first medley, featuring also ‘SOS’ and ‘Waterloo’, but there are lesser known numbers showcased too. In each instance the choir’s voices harmonise beautifully, creating a melodic ‘Super Trouper’ and an absolutely heavenly ‘Chiquitita’ in recognition of its significance as one of the most famous charity songs ever. They are most wonderful, however, when on show in stripped back numbers such as the QPAC Chamber Choir’s rich harmonic vocals in an acapella arrangement of ‘One of Us’.

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Appropriately, the eight-piece live band is also given its chance to sign, particularly in the instrumental ‘Intermezzo No. 1’ from ABBA’s self-title third album (the first of only two songs by the group not to contain lyrics). The orchestral rock tune is a perfect selection given its piano and guitar-led instrumentals and accompanist Tina Liu and guitarist Toby Wren are particularly excellent in share of its flamboyant sounds.

And if that is not enough fun, there is show on screen of the corresponding album covers as complement to its set list, which are entertaining in themselves for the fashion alone. And there are clips too, from the 1977 documentary film “ABBA: The Movie” about the pop group’s Australian tour, commercials featuring ABBA, including for the Japanese electronics manufacturer National (now Panasonic) and interesting titbits of information and trivia shared by Sherlock in emcee mode.

Special guests for the evening include 3rd year students from the Bachelor of Musical Theatre course at Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University who begin with boisterous share of the title track from 1979’s disco album, ‘Voulez Vous’, providing the first of many opportunities for an audience clap along to the energetic but quite lengthy number. In absolute contrast one of this year’s graduating students Georgia Bolton presents a soaring ballad refection on the end of a romance in ‘The Winner Takes It All’, which was written by ABBA member Bjorn Ulvaeus after separating from wife and fellow band member, Agnetha Fältskog.

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“Thank You for the Music – an ABBA Celebration” is indeed a celebration of the band’s extensive, diverse catalogue of music, offering audience members the chance to sing and sway along (because it is difficult not to move in time to tuneful numbers like the hugely popular ‘Fernando’). The music has a timeless appeal and when the evening ends with the ‘Dancing Queen’ audience on their feet dancing, jiving and having the time of their lives, it is on the highest of highs. This QPAC Choir event captures the timeless magic and excitement of one of the world’s most successful and entertaining live bands and like someone in the Supertrooper’s sights, as one of its audience members, you will be surely be smiling and having fun.

Photos c/o – Darren Thomas