The success of the hit show Mamma Mia! comes, I believe, from the fact that it is not just another jukebox musical. In fashioning the book and the show, the original director, the brilliant Phyllida Law, and the clever creator of the book, Catherine Johnson, managed to fashion a genuine and rich musical comedy.
Instead of merely bringing together a bunch of songs from the ABBA songbook, Law and Johnson got under the skin of what makes a real musical and achieved what a musical is supposed to do. They have integrated the chosen songs into a story that makes them fit exact circumstances, amplify and explain characters, move the story forward in various ways, and create a mood of almost constant delight and uplift. The characters always make sense as human beings. Their feelings seem believable.
The tale itself successfully references the early youth of the middle-aged central characters, and could be argued to be feminist. The songs are used with unflagging purpose. Over and over again the sell-out audience the night that I attended practically purred with delight not just because they loved the songs themselves but because the use of each song made such sense of what was happening on the stage.
The production design by Mark Thompson gives a simple and clever means of evoking a Greek island and its romance and Howard Harrison enhances the mood of the place with his fine lighting design. The touring company is a more than adequate recreation of the original. Though the film is very fine and somewhat amplifies the experience of the original stage show text, there is sheer delight to be had from experiencing this show live with fine performances and eye-grabbing choreography.
The cast is consistently praiseworthy down to the last “swing”, but special praise goes to the three female friends, Sara Poyzer as Donna Sheridan, Nicky Swift as Rosie and Helen Anker as Tanya. You can easily believe that they were a girl band in their youth and appreciate their nostalgia as well as the current people they have turned out to be. Each manages to bring something original and charming to her character. Poyzer has a real claim to being one of the best belters in the business, but I also liked her soft, quieter moments a lot, especially in her rendition of “Winner Takes All”. Richard Standing makes an appealing Sam Carmichael, Daniel Crowder a consistently pleasing Harry Bright and Phil Corbett a gruff Bill Austin. These three couples can all sing and act and dance. One of the great delights of the evening is when they appear in the curtain calls that turn into a bit of a spoof concert performance, spangly costumes and all.
Jena Pandya and Toby Miles as Sophie and Sky are noteworthy and I have nothing but praise for the entire ensemble. The ending of the first act, with an ebullient, compelling rendition of “Voulez Vous” by the entire company, the “I had a dream” opening and closing by Sophie, and so many other moments stand out.
But the real joy of this show is the fact that it is not just a gimmicky juke box musical but a true musical comedy fashioned with the understanding of old movies like Easter Parade or An American in Paris or Singin’ in the Rain from MGM. It is not just a compilation of hits.
The film is a terrific representation of the way the show works, but seeing the original on stage, live, is its own kind of totally engaging experience.
- Original Director Phyllida Lloyd
- Music and Lyrics by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus
- Book by Catherine Johnson
- Musical Director Carlton Edwards
- Photography: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg
- Cast Includes: Sara Poyzer, Jena Pandya, Helen Anker, Nicky Swift, Daniel Crowder, Phil Corbett, Richard Standing, Toby Miles
- New Theatre Oxford
- Until: 31 December 2022 and then touring extensively
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