Super(trooper) celebration

The Ultimate ABBA Experience (Lynch & Paterson)

Twelfth Night Theatre

May 5 – 15

‘70s Swedish pop phenomenon ABBA never performed inBrisbane (the band’s 1977 tour took them only to Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth), but the city is clearly full of dancing queens. With an audience featuring some fans in disco jumpsuits (but alas not cat dresses), the group’s enduring popularity is immediately clear at Lynch & Paterson’s “The Ultimate ABBA Experience”. This sparkliest of celebrations of the enduring pop sensation rightfully takes place under a giant mirror ball, beginning with burst forth of the quintessential, ‘Mamma Mia’. And waving arms, tapping feet and smiling faces are evident throughout the audience from this very first number.

Also clear from the outset is the excellent musicianship of the accompanying orchestra, Cadenza Chamber Players, under conductor, musical director and arranger Lucas D Lynch. Their sharp sounds construct the advance harmonic song scaffolding upon which the performances are built, ensuring that every number is musically textured according to its place on the emotional gamut of ABBA tunes. The orchestra’s strings guide us into the Nordic melancholy of ‘SOS’, beginning a tribute to the band’s greatest hits compilation album, complete with gold aesthetic and huge ABBA lettering (designer and emcee David Lawrence). And a symphonic lead-in to Lawrence’s late-show ‘I Had a Dream’ shows the tremendous talents of the orchestra. A commonality through much of ABBA’s music, whether it be as a ballad or rock anthem, is the piano and repeatedly Lynch also expertly fabrics each song’s unique percussive sound around us.

Energy is infectious and under Maureen Bowra’s direction (and also choreography) the show’s almost two hours duration flies by with audience sing and clap alongs and rise to dance to dynamic numbers like the synthy ‘Gimme Gimme Gimme (A Man After Midnight)’ that roars things into interval. Bowar’a choreography is full of vitality, using the full space and all levels of the stage, resulting in some standout moments, such as a moving tableau of the ensemble across the stage in ‘Money, Money, Money’ poses.

The show includes a number of surprises, including lyrical dance as accompaniment to a wistfully nostalgic ‘Fernando’ and a vibrant dancer burst of colour to brighten the steady instrumental build and lavish vocal layering of ‘Chiquitita’. Costumes work well with Tom Dodds’ lighting design and Ben Murray’s sound design to dazzle within each aesthetic palette, reflecting the multiple moods of the night’s set-list.

Talented singers Simon Chamberlain, Michael Nunn Jess Purdy, Nate Stevenson, Ellen Tuffley and music arranger Samantha Paterson show impressive control of the numbers’ intricate vocal harmonies, performing with power and passion. Nunn, in particular, helps to make highlights of an early, swaggersome ‘Rock Me’ and a pounding, flirtatious ‘Does Your Mother Know’. It is, however, Paterson’s uplifting ‘The Winner Takes It All’ that serves as the biggest vocal highlight, with appropriate mid-song applause and huge concluding ovation. The number, which represents the epitome of the band’s personal lyrics, requires a delicate balance given its pop balladry but despairing lyrics, and Paterson not only brings to it a vocal strength, but respect enough not to over-embellish its essential emotions.  

Jennifer B Ashley, Chloe Kiloh, Daniel Terribile and assistant choreographer Luke Woodrow (assistant choreographer) are not only skilled, but have appealing stage presence. Ashley and Terribile, in particular, convey a clear enthusiasm for every moment in their every facial expression. Each number is received with the joy it is shared, even in the case of lesser known songs like ‘So Long’, ‘Head Over Heels’ ‘Summer Night City’ and ‘As Good As You’, which segues seamlessly into the unapologetically disco-esque pace of an alliterative ‘Voulez-Vous’ full of infectious ‘ah haha’s’, and the irresistible glam-pop pinnacle of ‘Waterloo’.

Lynch & Paterson’s “The Ultimate ABBA Experience” is pure gold entertainment… a brilliant production, with lively choreography, super trooper costumes, immaculate musicianship and on-point vocal performances, and it is appropriate that the highly entertaining concert encores to thunderous applause, such is the ABBA-solute feelings of joy it conveys in time-of-your-life celebration of the iconic band’s essential pop classics.

Photos c/o –  PiF Productions

Super Trouper treat

Mamma Mia! (Matt Ward Entertainment)

The Star Gold Coast, The Theatre

June 19 – July 11

Forget the red; it was a blue carpet opening for Matt Ward Entertainment’s production of the smash hit musical “Mamma Mia!”, appropriate given the colours of the Greek taverna set at The Star Gold Coast’ The Theatre. The fictional island of Kalokairi setting is where we find Sophie (Madeline Grice) dreaming of a perfect wedding, which includes her father giving her away… if only she knew who he was. Her mother Donna (Jayde Westaby), the former lead singer of the 1970s pop group Donna and the Dynamos, refuses to speak about the past, so Sophie sneaks a peek in Donna’s old diaries to discover three possible fathers: Sam (Sean Mulligan), Bill (Sandro Colarelli) and Harry (James Shaw), all of whom she secretly invites to her wedding. When the three men return to the island two decades after their last visit, they are reunited with Sophie’s single-mother Donna and the heart-warming tale unfolds …. to a soundtrack of ABBA songs.

The show is one of theatre’s biggest success stories and its experience makes it easy to appreciate why. As one of the first in a surge of jukebox musical popularity, it uses of the songs of the Swedish pop group phenomenon to create a light-hearted musical comedy celebration of love, laughter and friendship. The musical numbers provide exposition and character insight, with dialogue segueing naturally into the songs. Indeed, only minor lyric changes are needed to integrate them into the narrative. And the band’s contagiously catchy big hits are well placed to hook the audience, for example when, having just learned that Sophie’s three possible fathers have arrived on the island, Donna distresses away in her bedroom with friends Tanya (Emily Jade O’Keeffe) and Rosie (Leah Howard) who rally her to finally join in with the euphoric and blissfully youthful disco-balled ‘Dancing Queen’.

A brilliant band under the musical direction of Kuki Tipoki brings vitality to the ABBA tunes and it is wonderful to get glimpses of the musicians in action at the rear of the stage, especially when the set is opened up for Sophie’s wedding to Sky (Lakota Johnson). While differing vocal talents are showcased, there is no faulting Westaby as the free spirited mother of the bride-to-be. In a flawless performance she not only gives Donna the usual stoicism, but also panicked nervousness and tender vulnerability in reconnection with her former flames. And the accomplishment of her vocals is incredible. The command of her delivery of the melancholic power ballad ‘The Winner Takes It All’ after a bitter confrontation with Sam, in which she tells of how he broke her heart, is an absolute goosebumpy highlight, adding emotional depth to what could easily have been just a production line of bubble-gum pop numbers.

The magic is also evident in Westaby’s ‘SOS’ duet with Muligan, in which they both of them wish they could go back to the start. Westaby is a fine performer himself, as seen in Sam’s attempt to give Sophie some fatherly advice by describing his failed marriage in ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’. And as the good and proper but fastidious Harry, Shaw, bring a nice intimacy to Donna and Harry’s nostalgic ‘One Last Summer’ reminiscence of their long-ago fling. Meanwhile, at the more upbeat end, a sassy, flirty ‘Does Your Mother Know’, during which the thrice divorced and now affluent Tanya rebuffs the advances of the much younger tavern worker Pepper (DonAlex Vilitama) and Act One’s closing disco-esque dance number ‘Voulez Vous’ are infectiously high in energy.

Joseph Simons’s impressive choreography takes advantage of the large stage space to enliven every number. When the girl group trio catch up about their lives in ‘Money, Money, Money’ casino themes and motifs and evident in movement as much as props and the similar ensemble number ‘Lay All Your Love On Me’ in which Sky tells Sophie he will be the only man she ever needs, flips the fun up a notch (#literally) with a crowd-favourite routine. And while after interval’s ‘Under Attack’ still jars with the feel of the rest of the show, its use of blocked shadowy en masse dancer movement to represent Sophie’s nightmare of all three of her possible fathers fighting for the right to walk her down the aisle, creates a considered contrast with the numbers that follow.

Given that this “Mamma Mia!” was originally scheduled for July 2020, the production comes with much expectation and it certainly proves itself worthy of the wait. The super trouper musical is tremendously energetic, but also emotionally moving and full of fun, meaning that when its curtain calls of ‘Dancing Queen’ and ‘Waterloo’, ensue, audience members are jumping to their feet, not just be in ovation but in pure joy at its treat.

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 idyllic 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).

voulez vous

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.

winner takes it all

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.

supertrooper

“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.

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