Friday, December 1, 2017

Mamma Mia!

Stephen Mahy and Sarah Morrison
as Sky and Sophie
Photo by Peter Brew-Bevan
Mamma Mia! by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, with some songs by Stig Anderson.  Book by Catherine Johnson from an original conception by Judy Craymer.

Canberra Theatre Centre, November 24 – December 17.  Gala Opening November 30, 2017.

Director – Gary Young; Choreographer – Tom Dogson; Musical Supervisor – Stephen Amos; Set Design – Linda Bewick; Costume Design – Suzy Strout; Lighting Design – Gavan Swift – Sound Design – Michael Waters

Principal Cast (in order of speaking)
Sophie Sheridan – Sarah Morrison; Ali – Monique Sallé; Lisa – Jessica di Costa; Tanya – Jayde Westaby; Rosie – Alicia Gardiner; Donna Sheridan – Natalie O’Donnell; Sky – Stephen Mahy; Pepper – Sam Hooper; Eddie – Alex Gibson-Georgio; Harry Bright – Phillip Lowe; Bill Austin – Josef Ber; Sam Carmichael – Ian Stenlake; Father Alexandrios – Stephen Anderson

with an 18-strong chorus ensemble.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
November 30

There are many ways to judge a musical.  Audience participation last night would have meant dancing in the aisles, if only there had been room.  We appreciatively applauded after every song-and-dance number – except, of course, as Donna retreated from Sam’s advances in Winner Takes All.  I think the full complement of 1239 bums on seats stood up, jigged in time, clapped, screamed, whistled and waved arms about for the encores in perhaps the most enthusiastic response from traditionally cynical Canberrans that I can remember.

But I think there’s more to Mamma Mia! than a mere immediate enthusiasm.  The program has a neat history of “The Show that Won Over the World” by Dewynters London asking, “So why has the show struck such a chord with audiences around the world?”  But the obvious answers, offered by Judy Craymer, of “feel good factor”, audiences who “recognise themselves in the characters”, and ABBA’s music are not enough to explain the response of Canberra’s audience – equally mixed across the board from young to old, from those who would be regulars to Bell Shakespeare to young clubbers I might see at Comedy Club venues.

Mamma Mia! has become a kind of “popular opera”, which is different from traditional operas and the general run of musicals, written by a composer (or two) and a librettist.  Weaving a story out of a selection of previously written and very well-known songs places this work into a slot in what is nowadays a world-wide culture.  After all even Australia has presented songs in the Eurovision Song extravaganza, which was always widely multicultural and is likely to expand its reach in future even unto Asia, I understand.

For this Craymer, Catherine Johnson and, of course, the composer Andersson and lyricists Ulvaeus and Anderson should be recognised for making an original contribution.  Of course, the further question might be, for how long will it remain as a leader in its “musical” field?  This is Mamma Mia!’s second tour of Australia (previously 16 years ago in 2001), with a brand new thoroughly Australian design and production team – a good sign for a continuing life.

Could it last a hundred, or even four hundred years?  Well, it might.  I’ll suggest two comparisons, which you may find unexpected.

Alicia Gardiner, Natalie O'Donnell, Jayde Westaby
as Rosie, Donna Sheridan, Tanya
in Mamma Mia!
Photo by James Morgan

Ian Stenlake, Phillip Lowe, Jose Ber
as Sam Carmichael, Harry Bright, Bill Austin
in Mamma Mia!
Photo by James Morgan

First, there are Shakespeare’s romantic comedies.  What a shame he never thought of a daughter searching for her three possible fathers, inviting them without her mother knowing, and ending up with her mother “giving her away” in a conclusion with four marriages: the daughter to her lover; her mother to one possible father, Sam; Bill marrying Rosie; and the other possible father, Harry, marrying a man called Lawrence!

Just as William at the end of the 16th Century played with and queried the role of women in personal, economic and political life of his time, using humour, song and dance, so Mamma Mia! has a similar part to play at the end of the 20th Century.  Shakespeare gave us The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Measure for Measure, The Comedy of Errors, Much Ado About Nothing, Love’s Labour’s Lost, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It, All’s Well That Ends Well, The Taming of the Shrew, and even The Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night.  Mamma Mia! we might exclaim!

Many of Shakespeare’s plays have been made into operas, but one other opera takes up the economic and personal/political issues like Mamma Mia!, and has a parallel history concerning the impact of its music.  John Bell’s recent production of Carmen was especially significant for using the music to tell the woman’s story, rather than concentrating the audience on wallowing indulgently in the fascinating Spanish dance.  Bizet wrote the opera as a new form of social criticism in 1875, but untimely died as the 32nd performance ended, preventing him from objecting to later productions which became all about the music.

Watching Mamma Mia! I realised how many in the audience were focussed on ABBA’s songs, applauding after each like an opera audience applauds each aria.  But we cannot fail to see the point in Donna’s story, bringing up Sophie without needing any of the three men who might have been Sophie’s father.  Her recognition in the end of her love for Sam is clearly made a separate issue: so she can marry for love, but not for submission; and the same is true for Sophie in marrying Sky; with the added modern twist of Harry – just in time for the passing of the same-sex marriage law.

The third element of judgement must be about not just the standard of the acting, singing, dancing and band performances, but about how well the directing and design worked for the type of drama being presented.

This show was excellent on all counts.  The choreography was much more fascinating to watch than some I found on Youtube, and executed with tremendous energy and vivid life which made the show almost bounce off the stage.  The straight acting by Sarah Morrison, Natalie O’Donnell and the four men (the ‘fathers’ and Sky) was well done, including what can be problematic – the transitions from speaking to singing.  The engagement with the audience was never lost.  Then the comic acting by everyone was wonderfully done – deliberately overplayed to exactly the right degree, always with a certain ironic humour, which comes from being an Australian show, I think.

On the music side I had only one – actually two – brief moments of concern.  All the band’s work for the songs seemed to me to be spot on as I felt they should be to be consistent with the ABBA musicianship and style.  But the two overtures, apart from being far too loud (while levels during the show were mainly very good for clarity, only sometimes dominating the voices a bit); the overtures included harmonies which seemed to me to be out of tune with Benny Andersson’s orchestration.  On each occasion, I thought someone was trying to introduce a kind of imitation ‘modern’ or even ‘post-modern’ off-colour dissonance, even if only for a few bars. 

Maybe there was an idea of saying, the story of Donna is not all harmony and light, but I think that was done better by the songs themselves, and the overtures should have kept to their musical style.

That said (as everyone says nowadays), this production of Mamma Mia! is literally brilliant, visually and musically, from costumes, set and lighting designs through to precision dancing, terrifically varied athletic choreography and great timing in the acting and singing.

Not to be missed.