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Mamma Mia!


Mamma Mia!

Louise Withers, Linda Bewick & Michael Coppel Entertainment

QPAC Lyric Theatre

January 28 – February 4 2018


Reviewed by Xanthe Coward



There’s not a better night out in Brisbane to begin the year, especially for mothers and daughters, or a gaggle of girlfriends, than Mamma Mia!


A celebration of love, laughter, family and friendship, MAMMA MIA! brings the fun and joy the world needs right now. Set on a Greek island paradise and inspired by the story-telling magic of ABBA’s timeless songs, writer Catherine Johnson’s heart-warming tale centres around Sophie, a young bride-to-be. On the eve of her wedding, Sophie’s quest to discover the identity of her father brings three men from her mother’s past back to the island they last visited 20 years ago.



Australia hasn’t seen Mamma Mia! since 2001, when Natalie O’Donnell, Donna in this production, played Sophie. How strange it must be, to be singing Slipping Through My Fingers instead of stepping into a wedding gown during it. O’Donnell is one of the highlights of this production, with a beautiful soulful musical theatre voice and the acting chops to match. She’s a delight, and so is Sarah Morrison (Sophie), whom we remember fondly from Queensland Theatre’s Ladies In Black. Perfectly cast as mother and daughter, there is genuine affection between them. Poppy had asked me before the show whether or not I’d cry during this scene, when mother helps daughter prepare for her wedding day and imminent departure from the idyllic Greek island she’s always called home, and I told her I didn’t know, it would depend on the delivery. That’s a standard response, but it’s not always entirely true. With nothing to fault in the delivery, others might have shed a tear, but there are times when it’s hard to take off the reviewer hat and stay fully immersed in the story, suspending disbelief rather than keeping some distance from the action and emotion. It’s a safe place to be, but not a very vulnerable one, and so I’ve had to admit that this scene didn’t move me to tears after all. What did though, was O’Donnell’s gritty and bitterly accepting reading of The Winner Takes It All. With such a basic book, it’s ultimately up to the actors to sell every moment in a jukebox show and with one exception (not their fault that the opening of the second act was likely staged under the influence of ABBA era hallucinogenic drugs…other likely explanations follow, see below), this stellar cast nails it, earning in turn, our affection, and fuelling our hopes that each of them (and by association and the magic of theatre, that we too) will see their (our) dreams fulfilled.


It’s worth noting, at least for other performing artists, directors and obsessors of the genre, that on opening night at least, the gentle, whimsical song that opens the show (I Have A Dream), didn’t particularly serve the show or Sophie as well as the following upbeat number did. (And look, other than to set the scene for Jesus Christ Superstar, do we ever need an overture anymore? Really?). The real start of the show, Thank You For the Music, saw Morrison light up, and leap into brilliant, connected and wholehearted storytelling mode.



Mamma Mia! – like so many of the jukebox blockbusters – is a perfectly polished production, one of the “precision musicals”, that simply can’t fail, with a spectacularly fun score comprising entirely of ABBA songs written by Benny Andersson & Bjorn Ulvaeus (and some with Stig Anderson), a tight and light little book written by Catherine Johnson, a beautifully designed and functional set (Linda Bewick), and a stellar cast, featuring O’Donnell and Morrison, Alicia Gardner (a hysterical Rosie), Jayde Westaby (a fabulously sexy Tanya, making Does Your Mother Know That You’re Out one of the showstoppers of the year, closely followed by the high impact full company Act 1 finale Voulez-Vous), the wonderful possible fathers – each of them a class act – Ian Stenlake (Sam), Phillip Lowe (Harry) and Josef Ber (Bill), and Stephen Mahy, an undeniably gorgeous and sensitive Sky, however; the jury is still out on whether or not he was the perfect choice for this role – perhaps it’s just the musical theatre tables turned on a secondary male role (rather than a typically flimsily written female role) getting through to the final edit without being further developed, but it seemed as though Mahy never got his moment to really shine. Did I miss it? Unlikely, with a vantage point from the second row, which I don’t recommend actually, unless you’re into counting abs and inhaling additional haze.


The supporting cast is terrific, comprising Monique Salle (Ali), Jessica Di Costa (Lisa), Sam Hooper (as Pepper he’s a standout) and Alex Gibson-Giorgio (Eddie). A strong ensemble brings to life the people of the neighbourhood.



Donna’s taverna is a little too pristine to be the run-down setting demanded by the story, but Bewick can be forgiven for bringing such beauty and functionality together. Transitions happen seamlessly, largely due to the multi-talented ensemble moving things about, helping the pace to race along. At least until we come to the awkward and clumsily choreographed Act 2 opening number, which for some reason is played out as if Fruma Sarah has visited from beyond the grave to join Dairakudakan’s Daiichiro, and Zen Zen Zo in their butoh bends and twirls around a double bed in the hope of scoring a cameo in The Greatest Showman… Whose nightmare is this?! What was it that Director, Gary Young (Resident Director Jacinta John), was thinking in the staging of this piece? Was it


  1. the writers’ work is sacred and cannot be changed
  2. the fine print states that the writers’ work is sacred and cannot be changed
  3. cutting it will mean we see less of the chorus and require the running time to be amended
  4. every musical needs a dream sequence (even Rocky had a montage)


It’s completely at odds with the overall look and feel of this production, but if we can move beyond it (and we must!), Young’s direction hits every other mark, and Tom Hodgson’s choreography (Resident Choreographer Danielle Bilios) is otherwise cute and fun and funky.



MD Michael Azzopardi leads a bright band, diving into the score as if it’s the playlist to the party of the year, which was the claim after all! And having taken an evening off from Woodford Folk Festival to attend opening night, we’d have to agree. We can never celebrate enough, the love, laughter, family and friendship that makes every ABBA song at any given moment still a favourite of someone’s, somewhere in the world, and Mamma Mia! all over the world, an unashamedly shiny sequinned and spandex’d smash hit!


Guys and Dolls


Guys and Dolls

Harvest Rain Theatre Co

QPAC Concert Hall

March 20 – 23 2014


Reviewed by Xanthe Coward




I love Guys and Dolls. I love the show, I love the music and I still love the movie. I love the iconic 40s fashion and I love the language, the strangely natural formal Runyonese. Along with Seven Brides for Seven Brothers it may be an odd contemporary choice for a big-budget show, but despite the archaic sentiments, there is much to enjoy. Tim O’Connor’s Guys and Dolls for Harvest Rain, their first fully professional production, is suitably bright in terms of its costumes and lively characters, but something is missing and it might just be the same clarity and sincerity I’ve longed to see for years from this company. Who IS Harvest Rain, anyway? Has anybody cracked them yet? For the life of me, I can’t put my finger on what is is that leaves me hanging after each production, despite the impressive individual elements and collective talent we see in their shows.


The audience at the Sunday matinee last week was subdued to say the least, though I could see there were many who enjoyed the show, most notably a heap of young theatregoers, including a group of MFAC senior students and their mums, who had organised themselves to see the show; they said they enjoyed it very much. I have no doubt that it was a very different vibe to that of opening night, which I was unable to attend due to my commitment to A Little Night of Music – Songs From the Silver Screen, starring some of Australia’s most accomplished musical theatre stars, and which I only mention for the sake of saying that Angela Harding, who played the proud “missionary doll” Miss Sarah Brown, may very well have felt right at home on that stage too, such is the calibre of her performance in this Guys and Dolls.


Harding adds her own jazz baby cabaret gold to the role, giving the character a little less saccharine sweetness than we’ve seen historically, and a little more spunk. There are times when she and Skye Masterson (Ian Stenlake) have a lovely connection but it’s not often, which is simply not enough for a show built around that unlikely relationship. Chemistry? Yeah, not so much. Stenlake is charming on stage though, and styles up his singing just enough to deliver a great performance overall so we’ll forgive them and the casting process.



Speaking of casting, Liz Buchanan is just gorgeous as Miss Adelaide, and I’m sure her Hotbox girls must be too, only we don’t get more than a strained glimpse of them because somebody forgot to turn up the lights.



This is the darkest production I’ve ever seen Jason Glenwright light away from shake & stir and in many places it’s too dark. We lose energy and pace when we lose colour and the characters’ faces, including during the Hotbox scenes, which are playfully choreographed and snappily executed, if only we could see them! I think I get the concept – it’s very Dick Tracy (I LOVE Dick Tracy!) – we see the star in the spotlight and the secondary characters inhabiting the shadows around them, but it’s not cinema and it doesn’t do it for me. Is it just me? Josh McIntosh’s design allows big, open performance spaces across a couple of levels and it’s a shame to lose so much action amongst the shadows.


Daryl Somers, as Nicely Nicely Johnson, does indeed do the job nicely; he’s a true blue triple threat and Sit Down Your Rocking the Boat is, as it should be, a highlight. In the same breath, I’ll mention our good friend, Dale Pengelly (Benny), who sings and dances and caricatures up a storm. In this comical secondary role, Pengelly reveals yet another box of tricks to add to his extensive performance repertoire, shining brightly and at the same time resisting stealing any of the limelight. Pengelly might just as easily have played either major male role.



Steven Tandy brings warmth and Santa Claus kindness to Abernathy. I can imagine no better reading of this role. I even enjoy his song, More I Cannot Wish You, which is the one I would usually skip on the DVD.



I enjoyed the show, it’s true that I loved lots of it, including Wayne Scott Kermond’s Nathan Detroit and the orchestra on stage (or above it), led by Maitlohn Drew. Strangely though, there is something not quite…enough about this production of Guys and Dolls. It’s all there, sure, in fact it’s not even heart that’s missing, but something is still not able to penetrate Harvest Rain’s shiny, happy high school musical walls. If you know what it is I’d love you to enlighten me. In the meantime, I’m looking forward to seeing the greatest number of unpaid ensemble members in a fully professional production, in July, in CATS.




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