How can we resist you?

Mamma Mia! (Queensland Musical Theatre)

Twelfth Night Theatre

November 5 – 14

Since opening in London in 1999, the jukebox musical “Mamma Mia!” has become a global phenomenon, with good reason. The ultimate feel-good show is the type that can be returned to again and again, such is the combined appeal of its score of ABBA hits and celebratory sentiment. Still, it is interesting to see how different companies but their own stamps on the show’s formula, and in this regard Queensland Musical Theatre’s production stands tall.

The wafer-thin plot is of a young woman’s search for her birth father. On the eve of her wedding, Sophie (Sophie Mason) tells the audience how her quest to discover the identity of her father has seen her invite three men from her free-spirited mother’s past back to the Greek island paradise they last visited 20 years ago…. on the eve of Sophie’s wedding to loyal and loving Sky (Christopher Morphett-Wheatley). Sophie assumes that she will feel an immediate connection to one of the men so that he can walk her down the aisle, however, things don’t go exactly to plan, especially as the men are reunited with Sophie’s single-mother Donna (Carole Williams). The result is a light-hearted musical comedy celebration of love, laughter and friendship. 

What makes the musical so joyful is the brilliance of ABBA’s strong story-led lyrics which weaves the songs into the storyline. Even from the opening overture montage of instrumental versions of ABBA’s hits, there is a display of excellence. Under Julie Whiting’s musical direction, the score still unfolds with some interesting touches to make it the company’s own, such as a synthy sounding ‘Honey Honey’, in which Sophie discovers her mother’s old diary, complete with intimate description of her dates with the three men, and the Greek musical characteristics that appear woven within the instrumentation of Act Two’s closer, ‘I Have a Dream’.

Bec Swain’s choreography transitions the musical numbers along with effortless efficiency, such as when Donna’s best friends, and former Donna and the Dynamos girl group, Tanya (Lisa Alsop) and Rosie (Fiona Buchanan) move us from their attempt to cheer her up with ‘Chiquitita’ to effort to convince her that she can still be the ‘Dancing Queen’ she once was in a full-scale ensemble number. The title track is similarly, smoothly punctuated by pop-up appearances of a Greek chorus of sorts and the stylised, out-of-place Act Two opener ‘Under Attack”, which sees Sophie having a nightmare, involving her three possible fathers all fighting for the right to walk her down the aisle, is up there with its best realisations. Similarly, the flipper boys of ‘Lay All Your Love on Me, elicit the most amplified audience reaction, thanks mostly to Darcy Rhodes, whose elevated performance of Sky’s goofy bartender best man Pepper steals every scene. And when he attempts to woo the much-older, thrice divorced Tanya in a fun and flirty ‘Does Your Mother Know’, his acrobatic animation makes for a standout number.

As with previous Queensland Musical Theatre shows, “Mamma Mia” consists of a large ensemble, all of whom project an infectious energy throughout. The lead and supporting roles are perfectly cast, with some obvious standouts. Buchanan is simply wonderful as the wisecracking, clumsy and fun Rosie. She dominates in her comic role, especially during Rosie’s wedding day proposition of Bill (David McLaughlin) in ‘Take a Chance on Me’’. Together, Buchanan and McLaughlin represent another highlight, given their genuine chemistry, her physical comedy and his animated facial expressions, which tell us so much more than his dialogue alone ever could. 

Jordan Ross as Sam and Peter Bothams as ‘Headbanger’ Harry, McLaughlin delivers strong Act Two musical numbers in ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’ and ‘Our Last Summer’ and Williams, Alsop and Buchanan harmonise together beautifully as Donna and Dynamos. Mason has a lovely singing voice that provides some touching moments to young and optimistic bride-to-be Sophie’s journey. And in the role made famous by Meryl Streep in the movie adaptation, Williams layers strong-willed single mother Donna with some fragility in her ‘The Winner Takes It All’ admission to Sam that he broke her heart. 

While opening night sees some microphone issues and a whole lot of unnecessary theatre haze, the vitality, entertainment and engagement of this “Mamma Mia!” is undeniable. Its celebration of ABBA’s 70’s music by a cast of talented performers, creates a joyously energetic experience, which is only amplified by its now-traditional finale medley of ABBA hits and accompanying audience rise to their feet to sing and dance having the time of their lives, ‘Dancing Queen’ style.

Photo c/o – CF Photography Families

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.