Theatre Review: Mamma Mia! – here we go again (at Sydney’s Capitol Theatre)

In Muriel’s Wedding, Muriel wishes that her life was as good as an ABBA song. Presumably, that life looks a lot like Mamma Mia – a glittering Greek Island paradise where beautiful young men and women burst into song and dance at the drop of a hat, fall in love, have a wedding and live happily ever after. But it turns out that Muriel’s life is just that little more interesting than the ABBA Mecca that is Mamma Mia, and even though it’s probably unfair to compare the two shows (given the latter is nearly 20 years old), Muriel’s Wedding comes out on top of the ‘musicals featuring music by Benny and Bjorn’ list.

First and foremost, Mamma Mia needs to be viewed in the right context. It is arguably the first big jukebox musical hit, paving the way for other artist-based shows like We Will Rock You (featuring the music of Queen), Jersey Boys (the Frankie Valli musical hit coming back to Sydney in September) and, most recently, American Idiot (by alt-rockers Green Day). So Mamma Mia’s place in the history of musical theatre makes it a show that students of the genre should make time to see.

However, what makes this show a must-see is also it’s biggest downfall. Sadly, musicals that take their score from pop/rock artists seldom have a convincing plot line. Hit songs are wrapped around scenes that can feel forced and unnecessary and a strong narrative is frequently dropped in favour of a big, sing-along finish.

In Mamma Mia’s case, the story does at least mirror the wholesome, light and fluffy style of the artists that give it voice. Twenty-year old Sophie is set to marry the love of her life, Sky, on the Greek island where she was conceived. Raised by her single mother, Donna, Sophie suddenly decides she needs a father-figure in her life and invites Donna’s three former lovers to her wedding. No-one, it seems, knows just who Donna’s real Baby-Daddy is, and Donna seems less than thrilled about the impending nuptials and surprise guests. But with the help of her besties (and former band-mates) Rosie and Tanya, Donna is determined to make this the best darn wedding the taverna has ever seen. The book has clearly been written to suit ABBA’s catchy tunes and, predictable as they may be, the big hits make for some fun segues into song.

Production-wise, this Mamma Mia really does feel like a European vacation. There is no mistaking the location of Linda Bewick’s set – this is the Greek Isles in all its picturesque blue and white simplicity. In contrast, Suzy Strout’s well-researched costumes provide an opportunity to let loose with colour and remind us that 90s fashion wasn’t all about flannel shirts.

Gavan Swift’s lighting design similarly works overtime, transforming Bewick’s simple set design to a colourful wonderland. Swift makes crafty use of the largely all-white canvas provided by Bewick’s realistic set, making-over the taverna walls with deep orange and purple sunsets and bright green and blue Ibitha-esque party palettes. LED lighting around the doors and the clever addition of strings of bulb lights add a fun, festive quality to the set.

The straightforward set also allows plenty of space for the ensemble to put in some serious dancing effort, and these sequences are one of the real highlights of this production. There are no weak links in the ensemble, who deliver Tom Hodgson’s choreography with all the enthusiasm it deserves. Lay All Your Love on Me and Does Your Mother Know? are standouts, but ultimately all the group routines are superbly danced.

In a real coup for producers, Natalie O’Donnell returns to Mamma Mia in the role of Donna Sheridan, having played daughter Sophie Sheridan in the original Australian production (in 2001). She and Sarah Morrison are perfectly cast as mother and daughter, both in terms of looks and talent. Vocally O’Donnell is also well cast against Ian Stenlake’s Sam Carmichael, even if their scenes together feel a little stiff. That said, O’Donnell’s heart-felt rendition of The Winner Takes it All was a standout on opening night – I just hope the raspy tone that crept into the end of the song was emotion and not signs of a voice that has been pushed too far.

Ultimately, it is the supporting cast who really make the show. As Harry Bright and Bill Austin, Phillip Lowe and Josef Ber, respectively, steal almost every scene they are in. Lowe’s awkward English banker is just real enough to make him loveable, while Ber’s outback adventurer take on Bill is a little hammy but still entertaining. Keep your eyes on these two during the large group scenes and you won’t be disappointed.

Also bringing her A game to the stage is Alicia Gardiner as Rosie. Gardiner is very funny and helps to lift the energy of the group scenes. Her introduction to Take a Chance on Me is one of the laugh-out-loud moments of the show.

But leaving them all in her wake is Jayde Westaby as Tanya. Vocal skills aside, this woman knows how to command a stage. She lands every joke and delivers a poised, professional performance. And boy, can she sell a dance number!

Despite the strong performances of the ensemble and supporting cast, director Gary Young seems to have focused a bit too heavily on delivering a family friendly show. With everyone playing it safe there are many missed opportunities for laughs and the result is a little flat. The young lovers are beautiful but not overly memorable and there is not nearly enough chemistry between O’Donnell and Stenlake to make you care about the fate of these former lovers.

Young was responsible for the first Australian season of Mamma Mia nearly 20 years ago. This familiarity with the material may have been his downfall, because some of the scenes feel very tired. Try as they might, O’Donnell and Stenlake fail to make standing still in a spotlight downstage belting out a love song while looking wistfully into the middle distance look remotely interesting. And they seem to do a lot of this in the second act. A few of my pet theatre peeves also creep into the show, namely actors who can’t seem to plant their feet when delivering dialogue and exits, entries and stage crosses without purpose. Yes, it’s a musical and clearly realism is not what we’re going for here but still, unless there’s a good reason for it, don’t make your actors walk every time they have a line – we get it, they’re emotional, gestures will sell this as much as standing up and striding to downstage left.

The other slightly off-putting element of this production is the amount of singing that occurs backstage. In order to mimic the harmonies and dense sound of ABBA’s music, the full cast is seemingly used for every song. I say ‘seemingly’ because it’s not clear just who is singing when so much of the music is performed offstage, while just one or two of the leads occupy the performance space. I’m not a great fan of hiding talented singers in the wings and wonder if there wasn’t some way that the vocalists could have been incorporated into more of the scenes. The songs certainly sound better with the use of a full chorus, but they also sound almost exactly as they did when they were first recorded; there’s no real breaking of musical ground here. Just once it would have been nice to hear a classic ABBA number reinvented for a single voice.

Mind you, if they did this the singer would have been lost under the surprising volume of sound produced by the eight-piece band (also hidden off-stage). Led by musical director Michael Azzopardi, the band is on point, if just a few decibels too loud. There isn’t much contrast between the soft romantic numbers and the leap-to-your-feet dance ditties, to the detriment of the experience.

Overall, Mamma Mia has all the elements of a fun summer party: classic tunes delivered by talented performers against a backdrop of the Greek Isles. But for some reason this production just doesn’t quite reach the festive heights of other shows that have played Sydney’s stages this summer season.

THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Mamma Mia is playing at Sydney’s Capitol Theatre until 6th May. For tickets, go here.

The reviewer attended opening night, Thursday 15th February. For pics from the red carpet, click here.

Photo credit Nathan Atkins