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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!





John Frost & Meerkat Theatricals

QPAC Playhouse

May 28 – June 13 2015


 Reviewed by Xanthe Coward





Legends! is a lovely, light, laughter-filled evening with Hayley Mills, Juliet Mills and (Juliet’s real-life husband), Maxwell Caulfield, with appearances by Leah Howard, David Denis and Phillip Lowe.



As the sun sets in Manhattan the claws come out as two famous but fading movie stars try to upstage one another. Leatrice Monsee (Hayley Mills) and Sylvia Glenn (Juliet Mills) are hustled by a theatre producer played by Caulfield (Grease 2, Dynasty, The Colbys) to kick-start their once-luminous careers by starring in a Broadway–bound play.



There’s just one problem: they loathe one another.



Director, Christoher Renshaw, and his cast have had a bit of fun with this production and how could they not? The playful, spiteful banter between the legendary sisters is beautifully measured and delivered, and the comedy is just enough to break up this age-old tale into delectable bite-sized pieces.






The show opens with a dodgy off-Broadway producer, Martin Klemmer, wheeling and dealing via Skype in a Broadway cafe. Caulfield’s character’s city drawl and his inability to sit still for an entire conversation make him a likeable enough fellow – you’d buy him a drink at the bar – but you wouldn’t trust him as far as you could throw him out the door at closing time. His scruffy charm and conniving ways land him a meeting with the ladies he feels are best suited for his next Broadway-bound show. Little does he know that the fading stars are both down on their luck, having whittled away their fortunes, and they’re ready to take any offer.



The meeting is set to take place in an impressive Manhattan home, which belongs to neither Leatrice Monsee nor Sylvia Glenn, but Leatrice knows the owner is out of town and she knows the help well enough to ask a favour. Designer, NIDA grad Justin Nardella, has created a gorgeous house, lavishly decorated in all its fine detail, to be trashed by the end of the show as shenanigans reach ridiculous stage.






Howard is hilarious as the maid, Aretha, who’d planned a house party for the same night, taking every opportunity to imbibe her scenes with brash energy and terrific pace without pulling focus, a supporting actress in every sense of the word.









As things heat up between the two rivals, Aretha, not realising somebody had booked a male stripper for the party, answers the door to Boom-Boom, a legit “Gypsy Rose Leroy” (Denis), who just about becomes the highlight of Act 1!


Act 2 opens with a three-phone-farce – three different conversations expertly manipulated by Caulfield. Klemmer has guaranteed George Clooney’s involvement in the show only Clooney doesn’t yet know anything about the project. The pace and physical comedy of this short scene reminds me of our fabulous Barb Lowing juggling several phones with ease in QTC’s The China Incident, directed by Dan Evans.






When everybody tries Aretha’s friend’s voodoo-woo-hoo-who-do-you-do-ju-ju hash brownies intended for the party, we get a whole lot of funny physical comedy inspired by a last-minute clean up of the stunning place before Klemmer’s arrival. When Klemmer takes several brownies for himself we witness the most atrocious exhibition of getting rapidly high that I’ve ever seen. Strange, but there you have it.



The only real problem with the production is that the writing ends before the play does and the final scene is oddly unfinished. It’s an anti-climax that could make you feel a little gipped after an enjoyable night out with acting royalty, who recognise what this is and give it precisely the sparkle it needs.



Legends! continues at QPAC until June 13 before moving to Sydney, and Perth, Adelaide and Melbourne.






Production pics by Jeff Busby