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Mamma Mia!: a nest of earworms

by | Jul 10, 2019 | Review | 2 comments

Theatre Under the Stars is presenting Mamma Mia! at Malkin Bowl in 2019.

Shiny pretty things. (Photo of Lori Ashton Zondag, Caitriona Murphy, and Sheryl Anne Wheaton by Lindsay Elliott.)

Mamma Mia! Here were go again.

Mostly, director Shel Piercy’s production of this ABBA jukebox musical is cluttered and loud, but it also contains some really good bits.

In the story, 20-year-old Sophie, who lives on a Greek island with her ex-pat mom Donna, is about to marry her boyfriend Sky. But Sophie wants her dad to walk her down the aisle and she doesn’t know who her father is is, so she invites to the wedding three men who had sex with Donna at about the right time: Sam, an architect; Bill, a travel writer; and Harry, who was a headbanger in his youth, but has moved on to banking.

Conveniently, given the number of ABBA songs that need to get sung, Donna used to perform in a group called Donna and the Dynamos; the Dynamos, whose names are Tanya and Rosie, show up for the celebration. Tanya, who is played by Christine Baranski in the movie, is a thrice-divorced cougar and Rosie is a straight-talking writer of cookbooks.

Piercy’s production gets off to a bad start with a whole lot of screaming. When Sophie’s two bridesmaids arrive, the three of them shriek their heads off, then join hands, skip in a circle, and shriek some more. When Tanya and Rosie first see Donna, that trio shrieks as well. Then the older women see the younger women: more shrieking. It’s meant to be funny but it’s not.

The same could be said for a lot of the comic business. Several characters run into walls. Others trip. None of it works.

Piercy doesn’t know how to focus a scene, either. Especially in Act 1, there’s too much going on a lot of the time. Partly that’s because there are too many damn people onstage. Donna runs a small taverna, but Piercy gives her an enormous staff and a flotilla of guests — and the actors who are playing them are all busy making very specific character choices. That would be great if it was subtle, but it’s not, so it’s distracting. Piercy regularly inserts unnecessary bodies — often in illustrative mime sequences. And every time a character launches into a song, members of the ensemble suddenly appear in every window, doorway, nook, and cranny. It’s like the place is haunted.

The performance level is inconsistent.

Keira Jang is still in the Musical Theatre program at Capilano University, but she takes on the role of Sophie with all of the talent and assurance of a pro. She’s got a powerful, unwavering voice that’s perfect for ABBA, and she acts with affecting authenticity.

Caitriona Murphy (Donna) is a seasoned pro and, although the British accent she uses for the character is distracting and imperfect, there’s no denying the vocal and emotional wallop she brings to all of her songs, including “The Winner Takes It All”.

Together, Jang and Murphy create the most touching moments of the evening in the scene that takes place just before Sophie’s wedding. Murphy in particular is a heartbreaker.

I also appreciated the big, beautiful baritone that pours out of Sam thanks to Peter Monaghan. And, playing Donna’s friend Rosie, Sheryl Anne Wheaton delivers one of the most consistently confident and relaxed — and therefor most human — acting performances of the evening. Late in the evening, she finally gets to show off her smoky voice to full effect in “Take a Chance on Me”.

That said, there are also significant holes. Joshua Lalisan sings well as Sky, but his acting is deliberate as opposed to responsive. And, although Lori Ashton Zondag’s characterization of Tanya is okay, that role is a gift and there’s a lot more that can be done with it. Stefan Winfield’s halting delivery undermines his portrait of Harry.

With the exception of the three-dimensional moving blades on the two-dimensional windmill, Francesca Albertazzi’s set is pleasing — appealingly sunny and Mediterranean.

Christina Sinosich’s costumes are fine — mostly a naturalistic assemblage without much of a palette going on — but she does create three fantastically shiny aqua-and-gold outfits for Donna and the Dynamos.

In the end, the whole show rests on two things: music and joy.

The ABBA songs that make up the score of Mamma Mia! are a nest of earworms; narratively, their placement doesn’t always make total sense, but they’re so much fun that it doesn’t really matter.

Act 1 of this production is so frantic that I saw only the desperate facsimile of joy. But the musical itself settles down in Act 2: the scenes are quieter and more emotionally loaded. Piercy’s staging also sobers up in the later going. Act 2 moved me. And its spaciousness allowed me to see what appeared to be genuine joy in the performances: Vince Kanasoot dancing in the ensemble and filling every extension almost to the breaking point; Argel Monte de Ramos grooving on the smoothness of his Latin dance moves.

This Mamma Mia! pays off —  but that pay-off is qualified and you have to wait for it.

MAMMA MIA! Music and lyrics by Benny Andersson, Björn Ulvaeus, and some songs with Stig Anderson. Book by Catherine Johnson. Originally conceived by Judy Cramer. Additional material and arrangements by Martin Koch. Directed by Shel Piercy. A Theatre Under the Stars production. In Malkin Bowl on Tuesday, July 9. Continues in rep until August 16. Tickets.


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  1. P

    Did we see the same show? I honestly thought it was one of the worst theatre performances I’ve seen in my life.

  2. J Hathaway

    I was genuinely surprised, shocked and rather dismayed to see this review as it didn’t reflect the experience of our group at all, and to be quite frank seems unjust, hence my (unusual) desire to comment here. My takeaway from this review is an acute (bitchy, much?!!! Is there some undisclosed history here?!) specific disagreement with the Director (especially when contrasted with the same author’s – IMO – somewhat more positively skewed review of TUTS’ other production, Newsies). Inevitably there will be some variations in performance given that it is made very clear this is community theatre (FYI I could have taken two of my family on a Tuesday night to Arts Club’s Matilda for the same price of five of us on a weekend to this production) but in my layman’s opinion it was exceptional – a bunch of extremely talented unpaid local young artists clearly passionate and wanting to make a career in musical theatre, balanced with some very experienced performers creating an exceptional piece of feel-good theatre in the midst of our tourist season, in the jewel of Vancouver’s crown. I can affirm that everyone in our section had a fabulous time and that feeling was clearly reflected by the large audience who had no agenda other to enjoy a jukebox classic, interpreted and delivered with verve, enthusiasm and a high degree of professionalism. We left feeling richer for our experience and the buzz amongst the wider crowd was palpable – isn’t that what the theatre experience should be about? Times that by factors of ten for a community production. Bravo TUTS, Vancouver is proud of you and I am confident this will be a record-breaking production for you. #lovenothate #celebratenotdenigrate ##artsforever #useitorloseit


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