Here I go again [by James Wenley]
You should have a fairly good idea by now if you are inclined to enjoy Mamma Mia!
Here’s a simple test: Do you like Musicals? Do you sing along every time ABBA comes on The Breeze? Do you have your own flared lycra jumpsuit in your wardrobe? If you answered yes to either of these questions, you probably have already booked your tickets.
Just as Donna might have felt when seeing three of her former flames turn up on her Greek island all at once, it’s a case of triple déjà vu for its Auckland audience. This is the third time Mamma Mia! has played at The Civic in a decade. A show that is already fifteen years old (it opened at London’s West End in 1999 and hasn’t been stopped since), I first fell in musical love with it as a fifteen year old when the Australian tour reached the Civic in 2004. The international British tour then came here in 2009 though weren’t quite as fun as the Aussies, a fact that was confirmed to me when I saw some of the original Aussie cast reunite for their 10th Anniversary production in Sydney that same year.
Throw in the ABBA mania of the 2008 Meryl Streep and… er… Pierce Brosnan led Mamma Mia! film, and the ABBA estates have secured their ascendency for decades to come as a new generation of young girls have succumbed to the musical charms of Sweden’s most famous pop group. ABBA’s songs are ear-worms like no other: catchy, infinitely sing-a-longable, and, as Mamma Mia producer Julie Craymer cleverly realised, emotionally dramatic.
This time it’s a local kiwi cast from Auckland Music Theatre that are dancing, jiving, and visibly having the time of their lives on the Civic stage. In what is a huge deal for the Musical Theatre community, New Zealand has been the first in the world to be granted the amateur rights via Amici Productions (responsible for other pro-am productions at The Civic including Rent and Miss Saigon) who have partnered with a consortium of Musical Theatre groups up and down the country to present Mamma Mia over the next two years, including Palmerston North, Blenheim, and Rotorua, where the international tours would never go. What this means is complete re-design of the show: gone is the show’s ingeniously compact abstract off-white revolving set, replaced by John Harding’s more stable Greek villa exteriors that can accommodate a variety of stage sizes (though the blue wing curtains reference the original design). The re-design is certainly a pragmatic decision due to money, money, money, but there is also an exciting opportunity to do something a little bit different with the show, and hopefully not just an inferior version of the professional production.
While musical purists might sniff their nose at the use of pre-existing pop songs, the Mamma Mia! formula is a winner that takes it all again and again. Rejecting the obvious route of a rise and fall ABBA musical-mentary, the show went for the universality of family; while the hook might be ‘Sophie has three possible Dads!’, its heart is the connection between a mother and her daughter. Add the witty integration of those tunes into the plot (including the shameless shoehorning of Does Your Mother Know) and the nostalgia-rich show becomes the perfect representative of post-feminist empowerment of the early 21st Century (even if ends with a hasty marriage). Sure, it’s contrived, but Mamma Mia! can deliver the feel-good fun factor, and that’s what I ultimately look for in the show.
This lack of consistent excellence in this local production of Mia is the major reason it pales in my previous experiences with the show. Case in point: While from the overture of the professional production plunges us in with show and energetic music, the change of light washes on the stage is underwhelming. Nik Janiurek’s lighting design remains rather ordinary for the rest of the show. A projected screen at the back of the stage, a unique feature of this production, is underutilized, and the visuals (like stars in Super Trouper) look amateurish. But then come the curtain call punch of Mamma Mia, Dancing Queen and Waterloo, the design bursts into vivid life with disco balls, lights, and the show’s title brilliantly lit up on the screen, making for an impressive celebration of lycra (amazing new conceptions of the costumes here by Lesley Burkes-Harding), making this finale all their own. Was the attention placed on the finale at the expense of the rest of the production? On opening night it was a case of too much, too late, as the audience in the Stalls remained firmly unmoved in their seats, unlike the boogying in the aisles of Mamma Mia’s past.
Donna (Deliah Hannah) and her Dynamos Rosie (Jackie Clarke) and Tanya (Minouk Van Der Velde) are the perfect trio to lead the production; you could not ask for better casting. Hannah brings emotional clarity to Donna’s journey, and particularly impresses with the reflective Slipping Through my Fingers closely followed by showstopper The Winner Takes it All. Jackie Clarke’s Rosie takes you by surprise, playing her with an unshowy fun until we finally get to Take a Chance on Me and she unleashes her full power of persuasion to win over love interest Bill, in a number for that my money, honey, was the best of the show. It’s magic.
The possible Dad’s Sam (Richard Neame), Bill (John Hellyer) and Harry (Steve Bright) match the ladies well with comic timing and sensitivity. One of the pleasures in Mamma Mia is hearing great Musical Theatre voices deliver these songs, which Neame rises to in S.O.S and Knowing Me, Knowing You. The younger couple – idealist Sophie (Aimee Gray) and goofy Sky (Rory Nolan) – are talented but come off as less confident onstage and don’t quite convince, Gray belting her songs with little subtlety. Special mention to Sophie’s confidants Ali (Cathy Rood) and Lisa (Destiny Anderson) who are usually quite forgettable but make a big impact. The ensemble, who have been rehearsing for six months, are a fit and tight unit, delivering Teesh Szabo’s choreography with relish. The men get the best moments, overcoming flippers (and you thought tap was hard) in Lay All Your Love on Me.
Christopher Moore’s Musical Direction of the band deliver the familiar Mia sounds although consistency was also a problem in this area: the band and the vocalists were at cross purposes in Dancing Queen, turning this dependable number into an odd mess. Microphone problems were unfortunate but forgivable, but the sound design might consider dialing back the backing vocalist who at times take over the songs from the leads.
Despite the change of appearance, director Grant Meese generally follows the West End model for his stage business. A welcome radical departure is Sophie’s nightmare in Under Attack that opens Act Two, going for a little bit more creep with zombie Dads. While I can understand why Meese has remained faithful to the staging (why change what works?), it is these little flourishes of originality that justify the enterprise.
I am reluctant to enter a professional versus amateur debate, though the lines get blurred when name performers like Delia Hannah and Jackie Clarke headline a cast that does it for love and the production is presented at a venue like the Civic (for what it’s worth, the $82.50 premium price ticket for 2014 Mia! compares with the cheapest B Reserve ticket of 89.90 for the UK tour). Taking the production on its own merits and necessary limitations it has many fantastic highlights – let’s add Money, Money, Money and Voulez-Vous to the mix that I have already written about – but the complete sequined package doesn’t quite prove so hard to resist. Writing as a fan, I was disappointed. Knowing me, knowing you, that’s not the best they can do.
Mamma Mia! is presented by Auckland Music Theatre and Amici and plays at the Civic until 23 March. Details see The Edge.