Mamma Mia! is a musical that defies the odds. Given that it is based on ABBA hits from decades ago, you might think it would be try-hard and lame.
And you would be wrong – Mamma Mia! The Musical provides a totally feel-good experience with catchy songs and a strong book. Definitely NOT a jukebox musical.
It all takes place on a little Greek island where solo mum, Donna owns the local taverna and her 20-year-old daughter, Sophie is about the get married. But Donna has never told Sophie who her father was, so Donna sneaks a look at her mother’s old diary from 21 years ago and discovers that there are three possibilities for paternity. So what does a blushing bride who wants to meet her father do? She invites all three to the wedding, which proves something of a shock for Donna.
So, the scene is set for confusions, developing relationships and of course catchy songs and great dance routines.
This is at least the third time Mamma Mia! has taken over a Melbourne theatre, and it works a treat on the small stage of the Princess Theatre. What especially impressed me was that it has the one basic set throughout, which is tweaked to become different island locations, and it’s the hard-working ensemble cast who double as stagehands to bring on and off necessary props. This show doesn’t rely on high tech wizardry but on the performers themselves. And that’s impressive.
Matilda’s ‘Miss Honey’, Elise McCann is single mum Donna. While Elise is a little on the young side for Donna, she claims the role for herself expertly, and her charismatic interactions with her daughter Sophie and one of the exes, Sam, is a joy to experience.
As Sophie, I think we have a new young star of music theatre. Sarah Krndija is a complete package as an actor, singer and dancer. She has that special quality of drawing your eye whenever she is on stage. Which is a lot. Her vocals have a creamy lusciousness to them, and I was bowled over by this new talent. Remember the name – I think we are going to hear a lot more about young Sarah in the future.
Another aspect I really like about this musical is the large number of supporting roles that cover an age range of late teenage to mid 50s, and the more mature members of the cast each has their moment in the spotlight, making the most of their undoubted talent. Like life itself, this cast has young up and comers and older established actors, all working together to create a great show.
As Donna’s friends, Rosie (Bianca Bruce) and Tanya (Deone Zanotto) bring belly laughs and plot development to the story, and they are excellent in their roles. As the dads, Martin Crewes (Same), Drew Livingston (Harry) and Tim Wright (Bill) are all well-drawn characters and quite different from each other. I loved them all, but especially Martin Crewe’s Sam, who has some moving moments with Donna that pulled my heartstrings. And Lewis Francis as Sophie’s fiancé, Sky, is charming.
While there are so many laughs in this show, there is also pathos with the storyline, and I felt myself tearing up in the beautiful ballad Donna sings to Sophie on her wedding day, “Slipping Through My Fingers”.
The show is perfectly cast, which is a big part of its success. It also moves at a cracking pace and there is never time to look at your watch or wonder when the interval is, because Mamma Mia! grabs your attention and doesn’t let it go. Director Gary Young has done a fine job, while multi-talented musical director Hayden Barltrop directs an eight-piece musical ensemble from the keyboard, and they take a well-deserved bow at the end of the show. And choreographer Tom Hodgson’s dance routines work beautifully.
It was interesting to note the eclectic audience – a mix of genders and an age range from about 17 to 80, all having a thoroughly good time. As I left the theatre, it occurred to me that this would be an excellent show to bring a theatre newbie to, or someone who has never discovered the joy of live performance. They will be hooked!
Photo credit: Sam Bisso
Julie Houghton reviewed “Mamma Mia! The Musical”, presented at the Princess Theatre, Melbourne on October 7, 2023.