Theatre Review: Mamma Mia!

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The production's recognizable cover image lights up the Novello Theatre's facade. (c) Erin Corrigan, Oct. 30, 2013

The production’s recognizable cover image lights up the Novello Theatre’s facade. (Photo: Erin Corrigan, 18 Oct. 2013)

Heads turn to watch the clusters of middle-aged women sporting long blonde wigs, glittered headbands, sequined disco caps and flowing, paisley-patterned blouses strut down the majestic theater steps of London’s Novello Theatre.

On closer examination, the “strutting” more closely resembles a poorly disguised shuffle, probably due to the skin-tight, metallic bellbottoms and white, knee-high platform boots adorning these ‘70s chicks. After a few minutes of searching and scrambling down aisles, these colorful characters finally find and sit down in their rosy-velvet seats.

Around them, other audience members – mostly women – continue to migrate through the theater doors and take their seats. Though their outfits are slightly less elaborate than those of the previously mentioned group, most people are dressed to impress. They shed their pea coats to reveal smooth, classic black dresses and blouses with touches of gold embellishments.

As I watch the theater fill from my grand circle seat on the third level, I can’t deny that I slightly envy those glammed-out ladies. After all, we are about to experience a live performance of “Mamma Mia!” and what better way is there to prepare for an ABBA-inspired musical than to match the Swedish pop group’s funky fashion?

Anticipation

Although “Mamma Mia!” made its musical debut in April 1999 and has since travelled to 400 cities around the world, I had never before seen the 10th longest-running show in Broadway history. Rather, I was one of those people whose admiration and love of the story is based only on the unoriginal movie.

Though the show’s been a part of London’s theater scene for 14 years now, it ranks 26 of 992 London attractions on TripAdvisor, proving its timelessness.

When the lights dimmed at 7:45 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 18, the pit burst into an instrumental medley of some of the production’s more popular songs.  Within seconds of hearing the mischievous, alternating keyboard chords of “Mamma Mia!,” I immediately knew this experience would be incomparable to watching the film (which I have shamelessly done countless times).

As the electric guitar added another musical layer, I realized that it would be a challenge to repress my desire to sing along throughout the roughly two-and-a-half hour show. A huge advocate of the 2008 film adaptation, I expected the live performance to completely blow my mind.

Plot comparisons

The production's lighting set a blue theme throughout the show. (Photo: Erin Corrigan, Oct. 30, 2013)

The production’s lighting set a blue theme throughout the show. (Photo: Erin Corrigan, 18 Oct. 2013)

Overall, the on-stage and film storylines accurately mirror each other. Both productions commence with 20-year-old bride-to-be Sophie Sheridan mailing wedding invitations to her “three possible dads” without the knowledge of her mother, Donna. Sophie expects to know who her father is the moment she sees him, but when all three men show up one day before the wedding, the young bride struggles to find an answer.

While inspecting the musical numbers listed in the playbill before showtime, I came across five unfamiliar songs – a promise of additional scenes not featured in the film. One of these scenes features Sophie singing “Thank You for the Music” with her possible fathers: Sam, Bill and Harry. With this harmonious, cheery, uplifting number, Sophie convinces the three men not to tell Donna that Sophie invited them.

Another scene exclusive to the live performance is Sophie’s wedding-eve nightmare. Shifting, eerie lights sweep the entire theatre as an ensemble clad in neon colors spins and wheels Sophie around in her bed. Overwhelmed because Sam, Bill and Harry each want to walk her down the aisle, Sophie vocalizes her inner turmoil and desperation through the frantic-sounding “Under Attack.”

Vocals on a whole new level

As for the actors’ singing quality, I tried to walk into the theater with no expectations.  Accustomed to the strong, versatile voice of Meryl Streep, who takes on the role of Donna in the film, I was a bit apprehensive.

However, Dianne Pilkington, playing the live role of Donna, surpassed the highest expectation I could’ve set, particularly with her solo number, “The Winner Takes it All.” In this number, Pilkington belts out solid, clear, unwavering notes that convey Donna’s acceptance of struggle and defeat, as well as her undeniable strong will and independence. Truth be told, Pilkington’s incredibly convincing performance left me with a couple of wet eyes.

“The vocals were incredible,” said Emerson student Abby Harvell, who attended the same performance. “It’s probably the best live performance, vocal wise, that I’ve seen, and I’ve seen about 14 Broadway plays.”

Not exactly “Dancing Queens”

On the other hand, Harvell was not impressed by the production’s choreography, comparing it to that of a six-year-old. On this topic, I must agree with Harvell; aside from an added ensemble dance following the plot’s end, the actors’ dancing seems limited to walking around, marching in place, and synchronizing arm movements.

Even Time Out London agrees, calling some of the numbers “oddly static, but when the choreography does get going…it’s terrific, and makes great use of props.”

Despite the show’s lack of complex choreography, audience members did not refrain from immersing themselves in the music. During “Super Trouper,” a performance by Donna’s old girl-power band, the audience instantaneously clapped along with the beat. Those middle-aged women decked out in ABBA-like outfits began swaying their arms back and forth, on the verge of breaking out into full dance.

“This is basically a party,” says London Theatreland, “and if you’re not on your feet dancing along to the big finale then you went to the wrong theatre.”

Following the story’s end, audience members finally got the opportunity to do just that: jump out of our seats, set our singing voices free and be true “Dancing Queens” – the only acceptable end to a Mamma Mia! production.

A group of middle-aged women adorning ABBA-inspired outfits sits in anticipation of the show. (Erin Corrigan, Oct. 30, 2013)

A group of middle-aged women adorning ABBA-inspired outfits sits in anticipation of the show. (Photo: Erin Corrigan, 18 Oct. 2013)

Erin Corrigan

Erin Corrigan

Erin is a Journalism and Marketing Communications student at Boston's Emerson College. She was born in Holyoke, MA, and is currently studying at Emerson's Kasteel Well in the Netherlands.

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