By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
The Mamma Mia! Effect, in a nutshell. Read the title, and a whole archive of hits instantly catapults into the centre of your mind as if they’d never left. And they lodge there for at least 72 straight hours (after that they’re flexing in the wings, ready to be summoned up at a moment’s notice). Self-help: none available at this time.
“And here we go again, we know the start, we know the end…. We’ve done it all before and now we’re back to get some more.” Currently exuding the magic of nostalgia from the Greek island taverna conjured on the Mayfield stage, Mamma Mia! is back among us once more, in Kate Ryan’s big, shiny, full-bodied production. And the wisdom of ABBA, the Swedish pop confection that’s remained a universal guilty pleasure for half a century, prevails. As it always does. “Without a song or dance what are we?”
No need to test the answer. There’s a show for you, and it’s running now.
Which only goes to tell you that you should never under-estimate the power of nostalgia. Mamma Mia! is a world-traveller of an entertainment designed to conjure our younger, livelier, dancier selves at particular moments in our pasts. Especially true in fraught times like ours, when we sense those fun-loving younger selves “slipping through our fingers all the time,” as the lyric goes.
Judging by the number of kids in the audience the night I saw the show, kids who weren’t born when Mamma Mia! premiered in 1999, you have to consider the possibility that there’s such a thing as acquired (aspirational? inter-generational?) nostalgia.
Anyhow, the globe-trotting jukebox musical which just celebrated its 23rd anniversary in London’s West End, cannily hangs 22 ridiculously catchy ABBA hits on a story (by Brit Fringe playwright Catherine Johnson) so judiciously flimsy, bendable and multi-purpose that the immortal lyrics don’t even have to be changed to fit.
There’s feisty single mom Donna (Pamela Gordon) who used to sing in a girl group Donna and the Dynamos and be a light-hearted party girl, and now runs a Greek island taverna. There’s her wide-eyed 20-year-old daughter Sophie (Jill Agopsowicz), who for some reason feels a compelling need to know who her dad is (I Have A Dream). So she secretly invites three possibles, names lifted from her mom’s diary, to her wedding. That’s it: the story. Mother/daughter, fathers/daughter, former lovers, the past, the future, the zeitgeist, fun beachwear….
It’s in a pleasurable setting: Greece is good for looking good. And somehow — with the material assistance of Ivan Brozic’s warm-hued set and flamboyant costumes, glowing lighting (by Daniela Masellis) and dreamy sea- and moonscape video/projections (by Matt Schuurman) — Ryan’s production finds a way to put Greece and a singing/dancing cast of 20 super-troupers in motion (choreography: Robin Calvert) on a stage that is challengingly small. This is a complicated achievement. I’ve never seen a show that occupies the Mayfield stage the way this production does.
Musical director Van Wilmott’s expert five-member live band is up there too, invisible behind inside a taverna wall. From their hideaway they capture the (I’ve had to nix the adjective “contagious,” times being what they are) ABBA thing unerringly in his arrangements. They’re great and stylish players. And in Ryan’s production the singers, led by Gordon, can really sing, by no means a given in the world-wide jukebox musical phenom launched by Mamma Mia!.
On opening night the sound at the outset seemed over-amplified and a bit tinny (an odd event at the Mayfield, where it’s usually impeccable). But hey, if the odd lyric gets buried at sea in Act I, it’s not exactly fatal since everyone knows all the words anyhow. In any case, it’s not a problem as the show goes on.
The production starts at a pitch of frenzy and giddiness — the arrival of Sophie’s pals, Donna’s erstwhile girl group friends, the three dads — that you suspect (and kind of hope) might be unsustainable. And that’s before the ouzo.
Ryan’s production applies itself vigorously to the intensity-of-the-moment that gives memorable pop songs their lift. As Donna, who rediscovers her buried romantic past and her playful showbiz roots simultaneously in Mamma Mia!, Gordon negotiates the pull between gain and loss (not to mention the demands of the hospitality industry) with harried ferocity. She really unwraps her big voice to knock The Winner Takes It All out of the park in a scene with Sam (Kevin Aichele), one of her ex’s, as if it’s the mainstage finale of a rock concert.
The scene where Donna and the Dynamos have an impromptu reunion, re-costume their former selves with bits from a memorabilia trunk, and find themselves suddenly singing Dancing Queen, is a highlight. And it’s not least because of the comic charm of Andrea House as Rosie, who’s tickled, self-mocking, and regretful at the same time. Later she gets my favourite line of the evening: “take a pew and button it.”
The three ex’s are an amusing contrast, which is their main function (it’s on their passports): Aichele as Sam the wary, divorced architect, Vance Avery as Brit banker Harry, Brad Wiebe as travel writer Bill. Donna’s taste in guys is eclectic but no mimes or hockey players show up.
For me (a personal taste no doubt), the most successful moments of Mamma Mia! always seem to be the playful ones where the characters are performing for each other or us. The soul-wracking ballads can seem, executed in dramatic terms, preposterous; it’s smart of Ryan, I think, to just give them over to the singer and the song. The winner does take it all at such moments, and ABBA is the winner.
But having said that, I must point to the exceptional Slipping Through My Fingers scene in which Donna takes down the volume and muses on time, solitude, and the impending loss of her daughter to the white-wedding scenario. Both Gordon and Agopsowicz, who has a smile about as bright as the Greek sun at midday (and a voice to match), do touch your heart.
Calvert’s choreography, always inventive and fun, is hip to the way Mamma Mia! is woven from performance moments, and more dramatic encounters between characters. You can dance, you can jive, having the time of your life, ABBA tells the characters, and us. And this is the show to prove it. You get the fun of remembering yourself at light-hearted moments — in good lighting with a great band. Haven’t you missed that?
Theatre: Mayfield Dinner Theatre, 16615 109 Ave.
Written by: Catherine Johnson, originally conceived by Judy Craymer
Music and lyrics by: Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus
Directed by: Kate Ryan
Starring: Pamela Gordon, Jill Agopsowicz, Matthew Joseph, Kevin Aichele, Vance Avery, Brad Wiebe, Andrea House, Vanessa Cobham
Running: through June 12
Tickets: mayfieldtheatre.ca, 780-483-4051