Mamma Mia! has finally opened with the confidence and assuredness of a company well into their season run. The leading players were especially well placed, playing with their moments and enjoying each other and the audience.
A short season at Canberra Theatre Centre is the premiere leg of an Australian tour that runs until October 2018 and settles into Brisbane, Sydney, Perth, and Melbourne before it ends in Adelaide.
I remember these kind of tours and they disappeared for decades. Does this mark the return of a true national tour for the musical? Do Darwin and Tasmania have audiences big enough with Australia’s current population to expand and broaden audience goers? If any musical could do it, this would be it.
I don’t like ABBA songs, but I liked this musical. Yes, the story is wafer thin and finding a reason to sing an ABBA song is occasionally a stretch. That doesn’t matter unless you let it. This show embraces this fact and the audience enjoy their own groans at the sound of a chord or phrase from a well-known tune that, out of nowhere, is inserted into the narrative, because the audience are mostly chomping at the bit for their opportunity to stand up and sing as well.
This isn’t a “dance musical”, but the dance routines make all the difference and this ensemble truly lift this musical. A mixed age and experience ensemble – which was encouraging to see – they are all vocally and physically strong and express the excellent choreography very well. Tom Hodgson has managed to bring a range of dance eras into this production (there are dance steps I haven’t seen for decades!) and it all works.
The technical team have done an excellent job. For a touring production, I enjoyed the set and its multiple uses all crammed into a small stage. Most of the time it doesn’t feel small. It would be interesting to see this show on a larger stage. A couple of dance routines felt very, very cramped for space with arms and heads a little too close for comfort – even for seasoned professionals. But the island setting is scripted as small so, again, it works and feels like the energy is bubbling over the sides.
Brilliant direction is noticeably so, good direction gets the job done, excellent direction goes unnoticed. I didn’t notice Gary Young’s direction. His experience as a director and performer makes this show work and I hope to see more productions in Canberra with Young at the helm. It’s refreshing not thinking about how wonderfully some ‘unseen’ person brought a moment to stage.
The experience of the leads is evident and they deal with the comedy of their characters very well, with some exceptional moments of perfect timing and tone. Donna (Natalie O’Donnell) had the single truly “musical theatre” moment in the show with ‘The Winner Takes It All’. The scene leading into it, her vocal exposition and skill, and the arrangement and lyrics came together to make a genuinely emotive climax. It was what I needed to make a worthwhile night at a musical, and I’m grateful for it.
But what do you care of my theatrical opinion? In the end, this show is about great performances and the songs – which the vast majority of the audience clearly feel are great. At the first opportunity to stand, clap and sing, they did.
Then the show becomes the concert everyone came to see. Do what I did and take your child. My thirteen year old son loved it. (Note: there is [occasionally blatant] sexual comedy throughout. Also, the second act opens abruptly with a loud noise that shocks less experienced theatre goers). So don’t waste your Christmas period on everyone else and cheap, alcohol-fuelled events. Buy your tickets and take your family to have a fun night out in a theatre with live musicians, classic songs, and live performers who care about their audience.
You won’t regret it – even if you don’t like ABBA.