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POSTED AT 07:50 AM 30-12-2018

Have yourself a feel-good musical this season!

For a long time, ABBA was that guilty pleasure band that everyone secretly loved (the One Direction of the 70s but blonder hair and wackier outfits) and in true pop fashion, their music has stood the test of time. Fifty years on, their legacy lives through the wildly successful Mamma Mia! musical which spawned a film adaptation in 2008 and a sequel which was released this year. Previewing in 1999 to UK audiences, it has since spread to 50 countries across six continents and the international touring production has seen it performed in places like Prague, Poland and Manila.

As part of its plan to become a culinary and entertainment hub, Cinnamon Life collaborated with the Mamma Mia! international production team to host the show in Sri Lanka having previously staged The Sound of Music earlier in the year.

As the curtain falls on the 10-day run of Mamma Mia! in Colombo tonight, Francesca Mudannayake writes of an enjoyable night at the theatre while catching up with a ‘super trouper’ Phyllida Lloyd, the director of both the 1999 West End stage musical and the 2008 film Bringing ABBA magic to Colombo. Pix by Sameera Weerasekera

So, what is it about Mamma Mia? I’m only now realizing how groundbreaking the show would have been in 1999 given that the plotline is a female driven narrative and celebrates empowerment at all ages. Donna, a single mum and fierce hotel owner is proud of her independence but struggles at the thought of letting go of her child. Her daughter Sophie, on the eve of her wedding, is conflicted about her identity and confused about who her father is. So of course, her three potential dads decide to turn up for the festivities along with Donna and Sophie’s sidekicks. It’s literally a big fat Greek wedding.

Making it look effortless: The ensemble on stage (above and below)

But really, the essence of Mamma Mia! is how relatable it is and not only does this inform the storyline and the characters but the entire production. The choreography is stylish but not overly-embellished instead remaining accessible to the audience – you can imagine yourself doing the steps (well, probably not those split-jumps!). Costumes, sometimes designed in hues of blues to match the surroundings, are simple and look like something you might have pulled out of your own wardrobe but it also allows moments like the luminous swimsuits or the kitschy Dynamo outfits to really shine through.

Right off the bat, I can tell you the script is a total cheese fest that borders on saccharine sometimes but given the context, you can’t take it seriously – you’re meant to enjoy the cheese! The show moves at a quick pace but sometimes it feels as if it was pieced together quite frantically so the flow isn’t as seamless between dialogue and song. Personally I wished there was more breathing space for the characters to process their feelings about what was happening instead of jumping into a song instantaneously.

Regardless of that, the cast carried the story with finesse and power. Of the main actors, Donna (Shona White) shone through with her vivacity and booming voice that provided the knockout moment of the show with The Winner Takes it All. Interestingly, she originally played Lisa and later on Sophie in the early productions of Mamma Mia! and is the first actress to play both mother and daughter onstage. The best lines though were reserved for her sidekicks, Rosie (Blaise Colangelo) and Tanya (Helen Anker) who were always present to poke fun when things got too serious:

“I bet you don’t remember me,” Tanya says to Sophie.

“Not with all that plastic surgery,” Rosie retorts.

But more-so than the main actors, I found myself always longing for the ensemble performances which absolutely stole the show. I can’t begin to describe how brilliantly executed Voulez-Vous or Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight) was. It’s a relatively small cast but each member had something to contribute in terms of their enthusiasm and capacity to perform rigorous choreography all the while making it look effortless. Pepper (Matt Jordan-Pidgeon), Tanya’s flirtatious amour deserves a special mention for his jaw dropping dance solo which was absolute fire. Moreover, they all genuinely looked as if they were enjoying themselves but I think that also speaks volumes about the incredible soundtrack which invokes nostalgia and feel-good vibes all at the same time. It’s the ingenuity of ABBA’s songs, when adapted into a musical format that simply grab a hold of you – from the harmonies of Super Trouper right down to the vulnerability of Slipping through my Fingers.

Mamma Mia! will always be a guaranteed good night out at the theatre and this production was every bit as excellent as I thought it would be. Cinnamon Life should be commended for bringing it down to Colombo, but my stance (as I mentioned in my earlier Sound of Music review) still remains unchanged. Whilst the city grows at an exponential rate, I do hope that in the coming years Cinnamon Life will additionally seek to support the burgeoning local arts scene and the theatrical ventures of our local artistes. It would be an absolute dream to see how successful international AND home-grown productions could be with their support.