Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Mamma Mia!

Mamma Mia!
Written By: Mark Armstrong

Format: Musical
Genre: Romantic Comedy
Date: February 24 2015
Location: Liverpool Empire Theatre, Liverpool, England

I have been a huge fan of ABBA's music for many years; they created so many hit songs that are very famous and range from catchy sing-a-longs to slower, quiet tunes, but almost all have a clear message. Whether you love Dancing Queen or Money, Money, Money, most people will have a favourite ABBA song, and most ABBA fans will love almost all of their songs.

So when the musical Mamma Mia!, first established in the West End in 1999, finally came to Liverpool, I really wanted to see it. I knew of the storyline behind the show, I understood that it would be light-hearted and feel-good, and I also recognised that a strong, experienced cast would be on hand, but to incorporate the music of ABBA would enhance the experience as a whole. And Mamma Mia! certainly achieved that: a theatre-goer watching this show will recognise all of their favourite ABBA hits, but it is important to point out that even if ABBA's music were replaced by the songs of another band, or if the music featured consisted of original tunes, Mamma Mia! would still be a very enjoyable and memorable show. Of course, the ABBA soundtrack elevates it even greater.

We are introduced to Sophie Sheridan (who was played here by Niamh Perry), who is about to marry the love of her life Sky (Justin Thomas) in Greece where her mother Donna (Sara Poyzer) owns a villa. Just one problem: Sophie has never met her father, but having found her mother's old diary, it could have been any one of three men: Sam Carmichael (Richard Standing), Harry Bright (Mark Jardine) or Bill Austin (Michael Beckley). So, Sophie invites all three to the wedding, on behalf of her unsuspecting mother, believing that she will immediately recognise her real dad. The only snag is that, whilst all three accept the invitation, Sophie finds it impossible to discover who her actual father is; it really could have been any of them. Meanwhile, her mother is stunned when they all turn up, and she begins to wonder how to explain the mess to Sophie, not realising that she is more than aware. At different points, it seems that any one of the men could be her dad, but with Sophie hoping for her father to walk her down the aisle on wedding day, how will the situation be resolved?

The story is intriguing, and the plot developments are carried out in such a way that the vibe is only ever positive. Indeed, whilst there are signs of emotion and drama, they never dominate scenes in such a way that we lose sight of the fact that this is a romantic comedy. From the humorous back-stories to explain why each man is a "contender" to be Sophie's father, to the light-hearted treatment of the happy couple at their stag and hen parties, to the funny and at times rather suggestive dance moves, to the one-liners by Donna's longtime friends Rosie (Sue Devaney) and Tanya (Shobna Gulati) who have also come along for the big day, there is plenty to enjoy from a comedy perspective.

The casting, as stated, is strong and features several notable names. Niamh and Justin are believable as Sophie and Sky, particularly Niamh who finds the right balance between being in an emotional family struggle but handling it in a manner that prevents this comedy musical from degenerating into a weep-fest. Donna and friends, who in the story used to be a group called The Dynamos that reunite for the wedding celebrations, all have standout lines and each of them get a bit close, shall we say, to one of their male counterparts. Although they play minor roles, Alex Simmons as Pepper and Charlie Stemp as Eddie deserve credit for the moments when the spotlight shines on them, and they pull off some pretty nifty dance routines. And when the entire dance troupes come together for the more advanced routines, the only way to describe their performances is stunning. Practice makes perfect, and it's safe to say that there was plenty of the former to definitively achieve the latter.

As for ABBA? Well, that's the secret to taking this from a strong story to an unforgettable musical experience. As mentioned, all of ABBA's hits are featured in the story at some point, as well as in a nice "bonus" routine to climax the show. What I appreciated was how each song was used for a reason; a number was inserted to fit with the situation at the time, which ranged from explaining a dramatic plot development to its inclusion being a perfectly funny yet entirely suitable tune to belt out at that particular instance. Case in point: Bill feels he is Sophie's dad, but is unsure if he is confident enough to walk her down the aisle. So, what does Rosie say? Well, "if you change your mind, I'm the first in line." You know where that goes. And sometimes you can't help but laugh not at the songs themselves, but at the ways in which they are introduced. It's humorous, but completely appropriate. And very few, if any, lines from the original hits are changed for the purpose of this story, which is quite an achievement. I also liked how I wasn't guessing "which song comes next?" The plot followed so naturally that by the time the next song came in, it just felt right. In fact, the name "ABBA" is not mentioned in the entire show, so for someone who didn't know that these were all classic ABBA hits, it would have yet like a perfectly constructed assemblance of music, which this show definitely provides.

So, my overall thoughts on Mamma Mia! were that it was what I had hoped for and a little bit more. A classic soundtrack perfectly adapted for this show, a variety of stunning or visually hilarious dance routines, a simple story to understand with a good number of twists and tunes and an unpredictable ending, a strong cast and a nice helping of funny one-liners all combined for a brilliant night at the treatre. ABBA fans will undoubtedly love it, but even if you're not familiar with the Swedish pop group, you should definitely "take a chance" on Mamma Mia! It is the perfect blend of comedy and music in a theatre setting and, to quote Shobna Gulati from my recent interview with her (which you can read by clicking here), it lives up to its billing as "the ultimate feel-good musical".

Mamma Mia runs in the Liverpool Empire Theatre until Saturday March 14. For ticket information, click here.

You can learn more about Mamma Mia! by clicking here.

Overall Rating: 10/10 - Perfect

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