Theatre Review: ‘Mamma Mia!’ Is A Sunny Party Of Non-Stop ABBA Hits
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It strings together 24 tunes, to be exact
As a jukebox musical, MAMMA MIA! has to work to make music and story flow together. It faces the big challenge of creating an original story that could naturally integrate a catalog of already-existing and popular songs.
If you’ve seen the 2008 movie version, starring Meryl Streep and Amanda Seyfried, you’d know the story is dramatic but ultimately simple: as she prepares to get married at a young age of twenty, Sophie decides she wants to know who her father is, and so invites the three potential men from her mother’s past to the wedding in the Greek islands, unbeknownst to her mother Donna.
And in between all that, they sing a slew of ABBA’s best and most iconic songs.
The result is a wild and splashing summer island party complete with flared pants, platform boots, and super catchy tunes we couldn’t help but sing along to.
If you stop and think about it, MAMMA MIA! seems like a 70’s themed party organised just to sing along to ABBA’s greatest hits. To be sure, if it’s a party, the UK touring production at the Marina Bay Sands Theatre is an entertaining and impressive one. The songs by the legendary Swedish group are not easy to sing, demanding gymnastics of the vocal as well as emotional range. Every member of the cast rose to the challenge, and the mother-and-daughter leads Lucy May Barker (as Sophie) and Shona White (as Donna Sheridan) particularly wowed us with their vocal chops.
Still, there were several moments when we were reminded of the fact that the story was created with the purpose of working in ABBA’s musical catalogue, to quite a distracting point.
That happens when one song would transit into the next within a few seconds, sometimes even without any change of sets and actors on stage. The 24 songs packed in MAMMA MIA! is only slightly more than the average number, but due to the quick transitions, we felt the whopping amount like a long medley. We’d go along on the ride more readily if the pace were more consistent. But alas, the movement (or lack thereof) of the actors during several musical numbers abruptly slowed down the action.
At the start of “The Winner Takes It All,” White’s Donna and Tamlyn Henderson’s Sam, the ‘main’ (you could say) maybe-Dad of Sophie, simply stared at each other for almost a good one minute. Throughout most of the musical, Henderson also seemed unsure of where to place his hands, and that awkwardness showed most in Sam’s solo numbers, where the movements weren’t much more than standing before the audience and singing to us.
Some awkward direction and choreography aside, this production of MAMMA MIA! kept us engaged in the whirlwind of events, as Sophie tries to manage the drama of all three men suddenly believing they are her dad. At this climactic moment, the huge ensemble choreography worked well with the thrilling intensity of “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!” and “Voulez-Vous,” to bring out the tensions. Barker also captured the sweet innocence of Sophie who gets caught up in a mess she didn’t anticipate.
Anchoring MAMMA MIA! to the wild island party is the relationship between mother and daughter. Though they have little scenes alone together, Barker and White have great chemistry, especially during the heartfelt “Slipping Through My Fingers.”
In fact, all the female actors shined, reminding us how awesome the women in MAMMA MIA! truly are. There is no dull moment whenever Helen Anker and Nicky Swift are on stage together, as Donna’s best friends Tanya and Rosie, respectively. With White’s Donna, as the glorious Donna and the Dynamos, the trio are a hoot to watch. They get the audience laughing and singing along, way into the curtain call “encores.”
Besides the women’s excellent performances, it’s the amazing music that finally saves MAMMA MIA! from feeling like a giant cliche, with all its emotional drama and outrageous outfits (which include hilarious swimsuits). The audience with us would probably agree with us, seeing as the biggest standing ovation at curtain call they gave was for the band.
Fans of ABBA’s music would have a blast catching MAMMA MIA! on stage. So would anyone looking for a chill and feel-good experience that celebrates love and female independence. Those seeking a more profound emotional journey might come away disappointed, but it probably won’t be long before they’re taken over by the feeling that they can dance, they can jive, having the time of their lives.
MAMMA MIA! is playing now at Marina Bay Sands Theatre, until 18 November. You can get tickets here.