MAMMA MIA! had its world premiere on London’s West End in 1999. It has since achieved a level of success befitting of the almost universally-revered Swedish pop group whose music served as its inspiration.
Over the past 19 years, MAMMA MIA! has been seen by 60 million people in 440 major cities; it has set the record for having premiered faster in more cities worldwide than any other musical in history; and its journey around the globe has seen it translated into several languages. It continues to play in London, and its New York production ran for 14 years and, at the time of its closing, was the eighth longest-running show in Broadway history. It has grossed in excess of US$2 billion (A$2.53 billion) at the box office worldwide and, in 2008, even spawned a film with an all-star cast.
Australian audiences currently have the opportunity to experience the global phenomenon, with MAMMA MIA! midway through its third tour of the country. It officially opened at Sydney’s Capitol Theatre last Thursday. For the new Australian tour, the production has been somewhat refreshed, with new direction from Gary Young.
Featuring 22 of ABBA’s hits (all penned by group members Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson), MAMMA MIA! is set on a Greek Island paradise, where Sophie (Sarah Morrison) is about to be married to a young Englishman, Sky (Stephen Mahy). On the eve of her wedding, she decides to uncover the identity of her father, who she knows is one of three men: American architect, Sam (Ian Stenlake); well-heeled British financier, Harry (Phillip Lowe); or travel writer, Bill (Josef Ber). So, without the knowledge of her mother, Donna (Natalie O’Donnell), she invites the three men to attend her wedding.
There’s not much to the story, but MAMMA MIA! is really an opportunity to revel in ABBA’s remarkable back catalogue, which contains some of the greatest and most enduring pop music ever written. Like We Will Rock You, the links between Catherine Johnson’s book and the songs are often tenuous, and the characters are thinly drawn. Additionally, in this production, the tone is somewhat uneven. But when a live performance of an ABBA classic begins, it’s virtually impossible not to enjoy the moment. Whether it be the title track, ‘Dancing Queen’, ‘Super Trouper’ or ‘Take a chance on me’, the vibrant reproduction of each ABBA hit makes MAMMA MIA! at least a highly entertaining concert experience. And given the group’s reluctance to perform together again (singer Agnetha Fältskog revealed in 2013 that the foursome once turned down a billion-dollar offer to undertake a reunion tour), this show is likely the best opportunity audiences will have to experience ABBA’s music in a live setting.
The new Australian production of MAMMA MIA! benefits from Tom Hodgson’s updated choreography, which enhances the impact of large ensemble numbers and ups the energy. ‘Voulez-Vous’ is a particular standout. The tight eight-piece band, directed by Michael Azzopardi, affords the ABBA cuts wonderful treatment and Michael Waters’ sound design is clear and voluminous.
When it comes to the performers, O’Donnell is an excellent fit for the role of feisty, bohemian hotel owner, Donna. As her close friend, Rosie, Alicia Gardiner demonstrates great comedic timing without going over the edge, especially in Act Two’s rousing performance of ‘Take a chance on me’. Completing the threesome, which once performed as girl group ‘Donna and the Dynamos’, Jayde Westaby is terrific as Tanya, who is urbane, sharp and droll. Westaby goes for a laugh at every chance and is a standout player in this cast.
Morrison is convincing as the young and strong-willed bride-to-be, showcasing a sweet soprano; as Sophie’s dedicated fiancé, Mahy is believably doting; and, as her potential fathers, Stenlake, Lowe and Ber are all strong supporting players. However, the really strong moments in this piece come from the ensemble, when they give full voice to the big numbers.
Bewick’s simple set effectively functions as the hotel on the idyllic fictional island of Kalokairi, Suzy Strout’s costumes have everyone looking their part, and Gavan Swift’s lighting choices enhance the sense of energy. During the musical prelude to Act Two, the audience is treated to a light show worthy of the great Patrick Woodroffe, further adding to the concert vibe of the evening.
MAMMA MIA! is not a musical that captivates audiences with a carefully-crafted and compelling book or gripping characters; it’s a show that will continue to win fans the world over because of its celebration of ABBA and a superb collection of songs. As you leave the theatre, following an impressive full ensemble encore of three hit tracks, it’s the music you’ll remember – and, for which, you’ll be thankful.
MAMMA MIA! NATIONAL TOUR DATES
Playing now until May 6, 2018
From May 15, 2018
From July 10, 2018
Festival Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre
From October 9, 2018