Mamma Mia! is the jukebox musical to end all jukebox musicals. It’s one of the most commercially successful pieces of entertainment of all time, having grossed US$2 billion since its 1999 West End premiere. To put that in perspective, only three movies have ever grossed more (sorry Harry Potter, you just haven't got the pull of Benny and Björn). It spawned the 2008 Meryl Streep-led film, which earned a sweet $600 million, and a movie sequel called Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is due to be released in July.
So why does the show – with an inconsequential and frequently illogical story about a young woman on the weekend of her wedding trying to learn which of three men is her father – continue to inspire people all around the world to open their wallets and head out to the theatre?
It owes its success almost entirely to the ABBA music it hangs its hackneyed but gently funny narrative off. Songs like ‘Dancing Queen’, ‘Mamma Mia’ and ‘Waterloo’ are among the greatest pop songs ever written, with melodies so broadly appealing they can fill dancefloors pretty much anywhere in the world. But there’s also a serious dramatic heft to some of the ballads – ‘The Winner Takes it All’, ‘SOS’, ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’ – that means even when Catherine Johnson’s book fails to successfully stitch together musical vignettes, most numbers land with some weight.
But there’s something about this new Australian production, with design, choreography and direction by Australians, that feels a little uneasy and too hesitant. It’s as if director Gary Young doesn’t quite understand what he’s got on his hands with this material – is it a top-shelf ABBA tribute show or is it a narrative-driven piece of musical theatre? There are moments in which he works extraordinarily hard to find a semblance of truth in the script and the characters and create intimacy where it doesn’t belong. Despite the actors’ best efforts, the frequently funny dialogue – full of declaratory nonsense and shoehorned plot points – isn’t quite good enough to be worth their efforts.
The sound design, by Michael Waters, is an unexpected problem. It forefronts the voices with great clarity and not a single lyric is lost; that means the band doesn’t always sound as beefy as it should for an ABBA song, and every lyric that doesn’t really make sense in context of the show is highlighted.
It’s not until Young and choreographer Tom Hodgson give into the dumb spectacle and pump up the band for the big dance numbers – 'Voulez-Vous' goes off – and the finale that the show finds a sense of fun and earns its stripes as a “party musical”.
Although the design feels a little undercooked – it’s certainly more ‘tourable’ than previous incarnations and the white scrim backdrop is more Rock Eisteddfod than Greek Isle – the casting is spot-on across the board. The performers manage to elevate the material through their charm and sheer determination.
Sarah Morrison sings gorgeously and finds plenty of sweetness as Sophie, the bride-to-be, and her relationship with Natalie O’Donnell, who plays her formerly feisty mother, Donna, certainly rings true. O’Donnell’s take on ‘Slipping Through My Fingers’ as her daughter prepares for her wedding is the show’s most poignant moment, and she brings a lot of grit to ‘The Winner Takes it All’.
Alicia Gardiner nails the physical comedy as Rosie in ‘Take a Chance on Me’, and Phillip Lowe is perfect in British fop mode as Harry. But the show is almost completely stolen by Jayde Westaby as the glamorously leggy triple divorcée Tanya. She hits every comedic mark and brings plenty of cougar swagger to ‘Does Your Mother Know?’, her duet with the excellent Sam Hopper.
You could spend plenty of time griping about the show’s shortcomings as a piece of musical theatre, but by the time it reaches its concert-style finale – bringing audiences to their feet to dance for a curtain call that includes three full songs – the magic of ABBA proves too intoxicating. It’s still the world’s favourite party musical, even if this version takes a while to fire on all cylinders.
This review is from the Sydney season of the new Australian tour of Mamma Mia!