Left - Jennifer Vuletic, Anne Wood and Lara Mulcahy. Photo - James Morgan
Here we go again…
If you didn’t catch this mega-hit of a musical the last time it was in town, just want to see it again, have only seen the movie version, or even (my! my!) have never had the pleasure, then here’s your chance.
If you have been living under that particular rock, then here’s the crib notes: Sophie, a sparky 20 year old who has grown up on a small Greek Island with her single mum Donna, is about to get married to her dreamy (if rather two-dimensional) beau Sky. Having long felt incomplete without knowing her father’s identity, Sophie reads her mother’s diary and discovers, wild child of the late ‘70s that she was, that there are three candidates for her paternity. With the rather hair-brained expectation that she’ll recognise her father on sight, Sophie secretly invites all three potential dads to her wedding in the hopes of having the right one walk her down the aisle.
Of course, Donna is none too pleased to have this trio of former lovers appear on her doorstep after two decades of independence, but bolstered by the recent arrival of her two eccentric best friends Rosie and Tanya, at least the scales are balanced. Thus we are set for a charming character comedy with a few unexpected twists and turns and sheer joie de vivre radiating from every scene.
Mamma Mia! is a special kind of musical that somehow defies a bit of conventional wisdom. On the surface of things you could be forgiven for thinking that it is a show which, at least on paper, seems like it just shouldn’t work as well as it does. Jukebox musicals, even ones entirely based on the music of a single band like We Will Rock You, may have had a definite measure of success, but they rarely really feel like a good, cohesive book musical, in which the songs have been written especially for the show, tailored to plot and theme. Instead you have the opposite, with a story constructed to somehow fit around songs that were never intended to convey a unified plot. Furthermore, it is easy to imagine the cynics turning up their noses at the idea of a musical based on ABBA’s synthy pop songs, unmistakably rooted in the ‘70s as something designed to appeal to only the daggiest of nostalgics.
Well if so, colour me daggy then, because against my expectations and without benefit of nostalgia, Mamma Mia! defies cynicism with a double-barreled blast of pure ebullience. It’s a show with not only an abundance of razzle-dazzle in the form of outrageous costumes and energetic choreography, but also a surprising amount of heart for a piece of alleged fluff. Indeed, the story (by Catherine Johnson) created to weave these songs together may seem a little hokey, but it draws you in with a collection of endearing characters that are impossible to dislike.
But undeniably, it is the songs which provide the biggest part of the appeal. I’m not even remotely enough of an ABBA aficionado to be able to tell if they have undergone significant new arrangements to suit the theatrical medium, but to the untrained ear these sound very much like the familiar versions so it’s quite a surprise how well they translate to the stage.
One of the major complaints one may have with a lot of recent original musicals is a lack of truly memorable songs, but here, with such a string of hits (especially in Australia), ABBA’s songs make for splendid musical numbers, with strong choruses, fun duets and cracking solos. It seems almost perverse that a light romantic comedy strung across the bones of thirty year old pop tunes provides a more captivating night of toe-tapping musical theatre than an original work with a clever, intriguing story like Wicked. But the fact remains that these really are tremendously memorable songs, something of which the Witches of Oz are largely bereft.
Even so, a lot of credit for making this production more than a formula of proven hits is the indefatigable cast, who are totally engaging at every turn, a smooth ensemble working with considerable precision, great voices and a flair for comedy.
Anne Wood and Suzie Mathers are both very appealing as the mother and daughter leads, as is Michael Cormick as possible father Sam, each carrying many of the biggest songs and managing to still inject a great deal of warmth and humour into their comparative “straight-man” roles, rather than be dominated by their uproarious co-stars.
As these comic foils we have the always enjoyable Robert Grubb as the foppish potential father Harry and the amiable Peter Hardy as Bill, the Aussie option for father number three. However they are more than a little eclipsed by their hilarious female counterparts, with the statuesque Jennifer Vuletic as the vampy, sardonic Tanya, and the uproarious Lara Mulcahy in a side-splittingly funny star turn as Rosie. With comic timing to die for, these dames would steal the show if given only a few more scenes.
With a simple, versatile set, colourful costumes (even before the infamous curtain call), exuberant dance numbers, infectious songs and joyful performances, it is pretty damn hard not to enjoy. If you’re a die-hard ABBA fan this will unquestionably appeal to you regardless, but in attending Mamma Mia! even the jaded skeptics may find themselves finally facing their Waterloo…
Venue: Lyric Theatre, Star City
Dates: Oct 23 2009 – Feb 7 2010
Times: Tuesday to Saturday at 8.00pm
Matinees: Wednesday at 1.00pm, Saturday at 2.00pm, Sunday at 5.00pm
Tickets: $29.90 - $119.90
Bookings: Ticketmaster 1300 795 267 | www.mamma-mia.com.au