“Mimma: a musical of war and friendship” presented by Orana Productions is a hybrid of musical theatre and opera. It is an incredibly challenging task to create a new piece of theatre, and even more difficult to create a symbiotic fusion of new music and a libretto (script and lyrics) about the rise of Fascism in Italy in the lead up to the Second World War. The passion of both librettist Giles Watson and composer/producer Ron Siemiginowski shines through in every scene.
The story begins with the Marini family who live in Turin, Italy. The family are active members of the resistance against Mussolini’s Fascist state. Mimma Marini, played by Mirusia Louwerse with dignity and incredible skill, is a journalist and her mother Ada (Suzanne Kompass) and brother Aldo (Jason Barry-Smith) are Mimma’s collaborators as they secretly publish subversive material on a printing press. As the situation becomes more dangerous, Mimma is sent to London to live with her Uncle Lorenzo, delightfully played by Igor Sas. Uncle Lorenzo owns a nightclub in Soho which becomes a haven for Italian refugees and immigrants. Sarah Parker, played by Holly Meegan, works at the nightclub as a waitress but with Lorenzo’s support, she pursues her aspirations to become a jazz singer. On Mimma’s arrival from Italy, she and Sarah become lifelong friends. Meegan’s singing voice beautifully suits the jazz style and creates a fitting contrast to the more operatic scenes in Italy.
As the story progresses, the situation in Italy becomes more desperate as it is increasingly difficult to dodge the ‘black shirts’ who suspect Ada’s and Aldo’s connection to the resistance. At the same time, the beginning of the war sparks distrust of the Italian population in England, now considered ‘enemy aliens’, even though Lorenzo and staff are opposed to Mussolini.
With only five weeks rehearsal for this huge undertaking it is difficult to gauge the tone that emerges as the production advances to opening night. In his note, director Adam Mitchell indicates the continued development of the musical, in that, the response of Perth audiences will assist in refining the production for a possible national and international tour starting in 2020. I hope that the writers and key creatives can objectively use the Perth production to distinctively define the tone of the musical and dramaturgical elements.
The operatic songs felt more authentic in relation to the serious subject matter. The scene and duet between mother Ada (Suzanne Kompass) and son Aldo (Jason Barry-Smith) hit the right tone, with both singing performances portraying the gravity and emotion of the situation and, at the same time, each producing the most amazing vocal ability. Likewise, the song between Ada, Mimma and Aldo in Act Three, though too long and a little wandering, was a good example of the music and libretto working at its best. Introducing jazz music in the London scenes also worked well, mostly, though the massive ensemble appearing for the tap routine did seem contrived.
I understand that opera has a lesser broad appeal than musical theatre, however, the bigger musical numbers felt out of place and need re-working to blend with the story, and perhaps only involve the major characters. In particular, the “Collar the Lot” number, and the ensemble scene in which it appears, does not belong in this production in its current form. I understand that the action and plot point of the police rounding-up Italian immigrants in London needs to take place to progress the plot but perhaps a more intense and sinister song and scene with much fewer performers would work better.
In addition, the most successful scenes are the ones that focus on the lesser known facts and events, such as the motivations and actions of the resistance, and the growing fears and changing attitudes and relationships of the English and Italians in Britain during these terrible times. Indeed, these facts and events also tie into Mimma’s migration to Australia with her sisters, which is a poignant moment that resonates in 2019.
Bryan Woltjen’s set design is visually spectacular, though sometimes impractical for the many settings and scene changes that occur. Instead, utilising the Regal Theatre’s fly system with Michael Carmody’s excellent moving image design would perhaps have been more practical. Woltjen’s costume design is exquisite, perfectly matching the era and beautifully tailored to flatter each performer. Carmody’s design and Trent Suitgeest’s lighting design manage to create some intimate moments within the vast images of the ocean.
Sean O’Boyle’s roles as musical director and conductor, as well as providing orchestration and additional music for the score is an invaluable contribution to “Mimma”. Likewise, the music provided by members of the Perth Symphony Orchestra lifts the score, though the sound was sometimes too loud and drowned out the singers, particularly in the first few songs. Choreography by Christabel Ellis is dynamic and appropriate for each number while sound design by Ben Collins blends well and is distinctive when required.
Prolific director Adam Mitchell has risen to the challenge of bringing this production to fruition and has transferred the spirit of Watson and Siemiginowski to the cast who deliver each line and song with conviction and sincerity. The principal performers each give 100% and are nicely supported by some of Perth’s respected performers, such as Ian Toyne as Senior Constable Talbot, an under-utilised Brendan Hanson as Gino; and it was great to see Ingle Knight and Alinta Carroll return to the Perth theatre scene in the ensemble.
“Mimma” largely works well as a musical, making some interesting observations and providing new insights into Italy’s involvement in World War II, and the British and Australian connections that ensued.
“Mimma: a musical of war and friendship” is showing at the Regal Theatre until 21 April 2019.