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Review: Mamma Mia! The Musical at the Sydney Lyric Theatre

As with other jukebox musicals, much of the joy of Mamma Mia! The Musical comes from the clever ways in which ABBA’s music is woven into the story.

While the jukebox musical has toured Australian stages since 2001, this re-staging of Mamma Mia! The Musical takes its cues from the 2017 Australian revival, featuring members of the original creative team — including Director Gary Young, Choreographer Tom Hodgson, Set Designer Linda Bewick, Costume Designer Suzy Trout, and Lighting Designer Gavan Swift.

The story focuses on Sophie (Sarah Krndija), who is planning her wedding on a Greek island where her single mother, Donna (Elise McCann) runs a taverna. After discovering her mother’s diary from 1979, Sophie invites three of her mother’s flings to her wedding — unbeknownst to Donna — to discover which of them is her father.

McCann brings high energy to this production. Her performance is full of life, channelling a wild and bohemian spirit which shines through each musical number, particularly her powerful renditions of ‘The Winner Takes It All’, ‘Slipping Through My Fingers’ and ‘Money, Money, Money’.

Martin Crewes plays Sam, one of Sophie’s potential fathers — rugged and sophisticated, with a powerful voice which brings emotion and heart to songs like ‘SOS’ and ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’. Drew Livingstone brings the bumbling Harry to life, lending a gentle voice to ‘Our Last Summer’ and strumming a guitar for ‘Thank You For The Music’. Tim Wright rounds out the cast as Bill, a vagabond travel writer.

The supporting cast provide necessary comic relief throughout what is often an emotional plot. Donna’s best friends Tanya (Deone Zanotto) and Rosie (Bianca Bruce) bring vibrancy and electricity to numbers such as ‘Dancing Queen’, ‘Chiquitita’ and ‘Super Trouper’. Jordan Tomjenovic’s Pepper is a notable mention, lending a carefree presence to the story and bringing laughs with his and Zanotto’s rendition of ‘Does Your Mother Know’.

As with other jukebox musicals — The Boy From Oz, Jagged Little Pill and Moulin Rouge! come to mind — much of the joy of Mamma Mia! The Musical comes from the clever, often delightfully meta, ways in which ABBA’s music is woven into the story. Writer Catherine Johnson doesn’t miss a beat, effortlessly folding more than twenty of Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson’s songs throughout the show.

Working in concert throughout the production, Lighting Designer Gavan Swift choreographs the stage lighting to propel the music while Set Designer Linda Bewick elegantly transports the audience from the bleak Sydney winter to a Mediterranean summer, constructing a modest environment featuring a two-storey taverna and a rickety dock which branches out into the audience. Swift’s dynamic lighting direction makes the experience feel almost like a live rock concert, aided by Suzy Strout’s costuming — glitter, spandex, breezy linen and sundresses — which creates the perfect atmosphere for Mamma Mia! The Musical’s Greek glam-rock island paradise.

Admittedly, more than two decades since the show was first staged, some elements felt decidedly dated. Mamma Mia! The Musical’s preoccupation with marriage and a need to couple up every character doesn’t allow for much female agency, and its transparently “Taming of the Shrew” storyline leaves little room for character development — particularly for the show’s matriarch, Donna.

However, throughout it all, Mamma Mia! The Musical is a show which knows exactly what it is. This is service theatre — the audience can expect to be enraptured by the blinding lights, athletic choreography, comedic beats and nostalgic soundtrack without becoming too deeply concerned by some of the show’s subpar plot points or questionable politics.

Regardless, opening night was a huge success. From the lilting melody of Krndija’s ‘I Have A Dream’ in the opening scene to the cast’s encore performances of ‘Mamma Mia!’, ‘Dancing Queen’, and ‘Waterloo’, the audience was singing along — if not on their feet dancing.

Mamma Mia! The Musical will enjoy a ten-week season at the Sydney Lyric Theatre, before moving on to Brisbane and finishing in Melbourne in October 2023.