How is this for a week of strange links. Sunday I went and saw Ukulele Death Squad and their support act Ukulele Russ did a mad version of Cher’s Believe. On Tuesday I went and saw Cher and she did three ABBA songs (as she has just appeared in the Mamma Mia movie sequel). And tonight I went to Mamma Mia – The Musical. I was half expecting to see them bang out a couple of Cheap Trick numbers in the encore (I’m seeing them and Foreigner on Sunday!).
It’s opening night and it is all lights, cameras, action on the red carpet. People are frocked up and glitz-ified as you might expect for a show based around more than twenty ABBA songs. The house is packed and people are here to have a good time, either because they have seen this show in an earlier incarnation, they love the movie adaptation, they are fans of musical theatre or they just plain love ABBA. Whatever the reasons people are primed and ready to have a great time.
Full disclosure from your humble reviewer.
I love ABBA.
Not in a ironic way. Not in a ‘I have BOTH Abba Gold CD’s. I mean proper have all the records on the original Swedish Polar label borderline obsessive way. I rate them up with The Beatles as songwriters, and performers and I fundamentally do not trust anybody who doesn’t see that or derides them in any way. They are peerless pop perfection.
But I should also disclose that I am not always a big fan of musical theatre. That is, until I am. When I see a show like Matilda, Rent, The Rocky Horror Show, Avenue Q or Eurobeat then I really love them and will return time after time. I struggle with what has been called ‘the Jukebox Musical’. These are shows that take a lot of already well known songs, often by a single artist, and have the story glued together in between to link those songs into a cohesive narrative. I’m not talking about the biographical theatrical shows about an artists life or story (Buddy, Jersey Boys, Dusty, Johnny O’Keefe etc), but rather the ones that utilise existing songs to tell a new story. There have been lots of them We Will Rock You (Queen), Taboo (Culture Club), Moonshadow (Cat Stevens), Our House (Madness), and there is a Take That one Go Go’s currently doing the round O/S. It is entirely possible that my issues with jukebox musicals is that I am primarily a music guy, so it’s harder for me to go with the narrative when it’s a bunch of songs I have had as part of my DNA for decades. So with those things said…Mamma Mia The Musical!
It’s great fun. Let’s say that right up front. It sparkles and shines exactly as you would want an ABBA musical to. There costume changes, dance routines and quirky choreography. The staging and set changes are smooth and inventive. The set is simple but changes absolutely to fit each scene. The lighting is masterful and often adds subtle nuance that build a scene. The cast is without exception terrific. The principals are all extremely talented and the ensemble are perfect. It’s the actual story I have a few issues with. If you haven’t seen the movie or don’t know the plot already consider this a spoiler alert.
Twenty year old Sophie (Sarah Morrison) is getting married to her hunky (and often shirtless) love a guy called Sky (Stephen Mahy), on the Greek island she lives on with her one time singer mother Donna (Natalie O’Donnell). Sophie has never known who her father is, but longs to have him present at her special day. Through reading her mothers diary (that is not cool Sophie) she realises that there are three possible candidates as her father, she invites them all posing as her Mum. So I am already having some issues with the implied judgement of promiscuity, but given it would have been the early 1970’s and there was still a sexual revolution in full flight I can see what the writers (all women by the way) were aiming for. Donna is a fiercely independent woman and free spirit who has raised a child on her own and built a business far from home. I would have thought a person like that would be forthright enough to be frank, open and honest with her daughter about her life, loves and the identity of her father.
Clearly I shouldn’t be thinking about logic in a musical theatre production, we could be here all day (because well, roller-skating trains, singing cats and French revolutionaries etc. So all three dads arrive after receiving a wedding invitation from somebody they knew two decades ago. Bill The Writer (Josef Ber), Harry The Banker (Phillip Lowe) and Sam The Architect (Ian Stenlake) are all confused why they are there, but soon get the idea that they may in fact be Sophie’s dad. Sophie doesn’t want Donna to know they are there (which along with the diary thing makes me think she has some issues of her own she needs to sort out), so there are shenanigans about staying hidden followed by then Donna’s surprise, confusion and anger at having to deal with three former lovers on the eve of her daughters wedding, of which she doesn’t really approve.
So there are confrontations, with the three male leads, with Donna not revealing her true feelings til late in the second act. Meanwhile Sophie’s bridesmaids Ali and Lisa (Monique Salle and Jessica Di Costa) arrive in the first few minutes and are terrific fun for the one song (Honey Honey) they are featured in, but then they are never seen again, except for group and ensemble pieces. It seems quite a waste, as bridesmaids are such a big part of any bride-to-be big day and their characters could have certainly be more of a feature in my opinion. The same can’t be said of Rosie (Alicia Gardiner) and Tanya (Jayde Westaby), the best friend and former performing partners of mum Donna. They play a major role in the rest of the show. Cuddly Rosie and millionaire husband collecting Tanya are both superb characters here to have fun, be with their dear friend and perhaps have some adventures of their own. If you don’t know how it all turns out I’ll let you see for yourselves, but it’s not what you would be forgiven for assuming. Given that it is all meant to happen over just a couple of days, your suspension of disbelief is absolutely required packing before you leave for the Festival Theatre.
While the entire cast is remarkable. Natalie O’Donnell’s Donna is fantastic, and despite all the diary reading and subterfuge of her character, Sarah Morrison’s Sophie is wonderful also. Westaby’s flirtatious and outrageous Tanya is a crowd favourite also. Sky’s mates, the impressively back flipping, high jumping Pepper (Sam Hooper) had hearts racing and Eddie (Alex Gibson-Giorgio) were excellent comic foils.
But the real stars of the show were twenty two ABBA songs. Twenty two of the most perfect, expertly crafted pop songs you could ever wish to hear. Yes all the biggies were included, Chiquitita, I Do I Do I Do I Do I Do, Money Money Money, Does Your Mother Know, Thank You For The Music, Knowing Me Knowing You. Each one complete gold. But I loved they used some lesser known Anderson/Ulvaeus songs like Our Last Summer and the devastating Slipping Through My Fingers. Our Last Summer was from the Super Trouper record in 1981 and Slipping from The Visitors in 1981. Slipping Through My Fingers is a song about a parent losing intense bond with their child as they grow into their own life and adulthood, desperately trying to hold on to precious moments and memories. As a dad of a five year old girl, this song punched me right in the feels tonight
Slipping through my fingers all the time
I try to capture every minute
The feeling in it
Slipping through my fingers all the time
Do I really see what’s in her mind
Each time I think I’m close to knowing
She keeps on growing
Slipping through my fingers all the time
Sometimes I wish that I could freeze the picture
And save it from the funny tricks of time
Slipping through my fingers
I am not crying – you are…
My favourite set pieces are the flipper dancing boys in Lay All Your Love On Me and the breath taking Alice in Wonderland nightmare sequence for Under Attack which opens the second half of the show. The performance, lighting, costuming and inventive stage work was staggeringly good, and possibly worth the ticket all on it’s own. Some songs like Summer Night City are driving disco fun, but push the plot along nicely and there is some farcical shenanigans on Take a Chance on Me. The encore is the cast returning for a big glitterized sing and dance-a-long which has the entire audience on their feet.
Mamma Mia – The Musical is an exceptional performance of a flawed story with BRILLIANT music and spectacular cast.
Live Review by Ian Bell
Mamma Mia – The Musical runs until 18 November. Tickets and show times at Bass