Wednesday, December 13, 2017


National Capital Orchestra
Conducted by Leonard Weiss
John Smiles, Flute
Elizabeth Alford, Harp
Christian Renggli, Cello
Charles Hudson, Narrator
Albert Hall Saturday 9 December

Reviewed by Len Power

How do you capture the attention of young to very young children at a classical music concert?  The National Capital Orchestra gave it a valiant try with their concert that included children’s favourite, Prokofiev’s ‘Peter and the Wolf’.

With the orchestra set up on the floor of the auditorium of the Albert Hall, children were invited to get up close and personal with the orchestra by sitting on the floor between the front row of the audience and the players.  Conductor, Leonard Weiss, had a few tricks up his sleeve to engage his young audience and did it very well.

The first item, Rossini’s ‘Overture to the Barber of Seville’, competed with a fair amount of noise as the children settled down.  Some children were captivated by the music and sat quietly, taking it all in.  Others, of course, had no idea why they were there and behaved predictably.

National Capital Orchestra with Charles Hudson narrating 'Peter and the Wolf'
When the item finished, Leonard Weiss offered the opportunity for one of the children to conduct a short section of the overture.  Young Henrietta was selected and she strode confidently to the podium as if she did this every day.  It must have been a thrill for her to feel the power of the orchestra under her direction.
John Smiles (flute), Elizabeth Alford (harp) and conductor, Leonard Weiss
The next item was the second movement of Mozart’s ‘Concerto for Flute, Harp and Orchestra’ with soloists, John Smiles (flute) and Elizabeth Alford (harp).  The children were invited to ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ at the really nice bits and did so enthusiastically.  Overheard behind me was a young lady who loudly asked about the harp player, ‘How does she know which string to play?’
Christian Renggli (cello)
Christian Renggli on cello then joined the orchestra to perform Honegger’s ‘Cello Concerto’.  It looked a bit of a challenge for Renggli to play with children right at his feet, but he gave a fine, edgy performance of this fascinating work with the orchestra.

The final item and the big attraction for children was Prokofiev’s ‘Peter and the Wolf’ which was well-played by the orchestra.  As the narrator, actor/singer Charles Hudson really engaged the children with his fine voice and well-chosen physical movements for each of the characters.
Charles Hudson (Narrator, 'Peter and the Wolf')
Attending a concert such as this at an early age might just be the spark that inspires a young person to develop a love of fine music for the rest of their life.  That hope makes it all worthwhile.

Photos by Peter Hislop

This review was first published in the Canberra City News digital edition of 10 December.

Len Power’s reviews are also broadcast on Artsound FM 92.7’s ‘On Stage’ program on Mondays from 3.30pm and ‘Artcetera’ from 9.00am Saturdays.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Muriel's Wedding - The Musical

Muriel’s Wedding - The Musical, based on the movie by PJ Hogan.  Book by PJ Hogan; Music and Lyrics by Kate Miller-Heidke & Keir Nuttall, with songs by Benny Andersson, Bjorn Ulvaeus & Stig Anderson originally written for ABBA.

Sydney Theatre Company with Global Creatures Production at Roslyn Packer Theatre, November 6  - January 27, 2017/18.

Directed by Simon Phillips
Technical Director – Richard Martin; Musical Director (orchestrations, arrangements & additional music) – Isaac Hayward; Resident Director / Choreographer – Ellen Simpson

Music Supervisor – Guy Simpson; Sound Designer – Michael Waters; Lighting Designer – Trent Suidgeest; Set & Costume Designer – Gabriela Tylesova; Choreographer – Andrew Hallsworth

Muriel Heslop – Maggie McKenna; Rhonda Epinstall – Madeleine Jones; Bill Heslop – Gary Sweet; Betty Heslop – Justine Clark; Deidre Chambers – Helen Dallimore

Brice Nobes – Ben Bennett; Joanie Heslop – Briallen Clarke; Nicole Stumpf – Hilary Cole; Ken Blundell – Dave Eastgate; Cheryl Moochmore – Manon Gunderson-Briggs; Agnetha Fäitskog – Jaime Hadwen; Anni-Frid Lyngstad – Sheridan Harbridge; Björn Ulvaeus – Mark Hill; Alexander Shkuratov – Stephen Madsen; Charlie Chan – Kenneth Moraleda; Janine Nutall – Laura Murphy; Malcolm Heslop – Connor Sweeney; Benny Andersson – Aaron Tsindos; Perry Heslop – Michael Whalley; Tania Degano – Christie Whelan Browne

Annie Aitken, Prue Bell, Kaeng Chan, Tony Cogin, Caroline Kaspar, Adrian Li Donni, Luigi Lucente, Tom Sharah

Isaac Hayward (Keyboard 1); Luke Byrne (Keyboard 2); Cameron Henderson (Guitar 1); Gary Vickery (Guitar 2 / Keyboard 3); Vanessa Tammetta (Violin / Viola); Clare Kahn (Cello); Emile Nelson (Electric / Double / Synth Bass); Steven Pope (Drums); Tim Paillas (Percussion)

Maggie McKenna as Muriel Heslop
with The Bouquet
Reviewed by Frank McKone
December 6

ABBA’s songs are used better in Muriel’s Wedding, the Musical than in Mamma Mia!, the Musical.  It’s hard not to compare the two.  Mamma Mia! cleverly weaves the story around 22 songs, introduces significant issues about men’s behaviour and women’s proper treatment, but ends in marriages all round – feels good but a bit too easy considering the less attractive reality expressed in some of ABBA’s more serious songs.

Muriel’s Wedding, especially in PJ Hogan’s updating of his movie script, and the black edge to the excruciatingly funny numbers, using seven of ABBA’s songs among the very witty songs – verbally and musically – by Miller-Heidke and Nuttall, creates a much more powerful effect.

Where Mamma Mia! is a highly enjoyable romantic comedy with some worthwhile social commentary along the way, Muriel’s Wedding focusses on exposing crucial issues of some men’s destructive behaviour, both in the family and at the political levels.  At her mother’s funeral, Muriel shows how she has grown up through the experience; so have her sister and brothers – and so have we.

The satire is funny – often terribly funny – because Muriel (but absolutely not her father) comes to understand how she has changed; while Mamma Mia!’s Sophie Sheridan quite simply gets what she hopes for, while her mother rekindles an old flame without her script providing any justification, apart from the romance of ‘falling in love again’.

Mamma Mia!’s women want to be independent and strong, but are waylaid by love.  Muriel and Rhonda, facing the horror of cancer – impossible to predict and probably incurable – learn what love really entails, gain in strength, and strengthen our understanding.  Hogan’s quality of drama is not strained.

In comparing these two very Australian productions, both have everything going for them on stage; but, for me at least, Muriel’s Wedding, the Musical gets an extra guernsey: the story of corruption and the satirical contrast of typical Aussie sexist culture in Porpoise Spit with the wild variety of the Sydney city scene has freed the designers to let themselves go.

A typical Mondrian painting

The stage design opens in primary colours, turning into edgy plain Mondrian-style art, against which Gabriela Tylesova’s costumes riotously explode – on the beach, in Oxford Street, under the Harbour Bridge, on the Opera House forecourt,  in every wedding dress shop you can imagine, at a tropical island resort, inside the Heslop lounge room watching tv, outside before and after Betty sets it on fire: scene after scene until the funeral service, where stark black takes over from frothy white.  This is design with emblemetic purpose, a drama in its own right.  A work of art – very specifically modern Australian art from John Brack through Brett Whiteley to Tylesova herself.

Beach scene in Muriel's Wedding - The Musical
Set and costumes designed by Gabriela Tyselova

Gabriela Tyselova's designs for 'Misfits of Sydney'
for Muriel's Wedding - The Musical

In some ways the choreography in Mamma Mia! from a ‘pure’ dance point of view was more original and complex, and therefore could be seen as more entertaining; yet Andrew Hallsworth and Ellen Simpson have exaggerated the dance and movement work in a way that make so much fun of Australian characters that we just could not stop laughing.  Somewhere behind our recognition was the old cartoon, “Stop laughing, this is serious!”, which has been picked up by the ABC in its series on the history of Australian comedy [ ] .

Ben Bennett as Brice Nobes
Design by Gabriela Tyselova
for Muriel's Wedding - The Musical

After the design, there’s the more than difficult job of praising individual actors, since no-one among the principals and the ensemble lost their footing – which they might well have done literally in such a fast moving production, which outshone the movie for set and costume changes with the cameras in our eyes permanently turned on. 

I’m sure everyone agreed with me that the long search which finally lighted upon Maggie McKenna for Muriel was well worth the extra effort, which we saw played out on ABCtv  in Making Muriel, broadcast on November 26, and still available on iView until December 26.  McKenna’s voice has the full range needed for the singing, while her acting superbly captured each mood, especially in the more complex situations where Muriel finds herself divided several different ways at once.

Maggie McKenna as Muriel Heslop
in Muriel's Wedding - The Musical

The groupies like Tania, Cheryl, Nicole and Janine were absolutely wonderful comedians throughout (comediennes? – or is that not politically correct nowadays), and were absolutely but accurately ghastly in their nasty unwillingness to accept Muriel, in the song Can’t Hang – about with us any more! 

Then the mystical silvery-white ABBAs, in Muriel’s and later her mother Betty’s imaginations, seemed to me, relying on my distant memory, to perform with as much elan as the originals in that faraway Eurovision contest in 1974. 

Christie Whelan Browne, Manon Gunderson-Briggs,
Hilary Cole, Laura Murphy (maybe not in correct order)
as Tania Degano, Cheryl Moochmore, Nicole Stumpf and Janine Nuttall
in Muriel's Wedding - The Musical

Briallen Clarke, Michael Whalley, Connor Sweeney
as Joanie, Perry and Malcolm Heslop
in the lounge room watching tv
in Muriel's Wedding - The Musical

There’s far too much to cover here – I’m almost writing a thesis, already – but I have to say that it was Justine Clarke’s Betty, when she finally could no longer cope in the face of her husband’s calumny, who turned our feelings over, and turned the play around as the ABBAs sang SOS, and we realised what that meant.

And, of course, I haven’t mentioned what really happened when Muriel married.

What Muriel’s Wedding, the Musical does is to tie together the three strings of comedy, serious social criticism and personal growth through tragic experience to make a top quality theatrical work, which should well satisfy those of us concerned about ‘conservative’ programming by the ‘majors’ which I’ve previously discussed in Platform Papers commentaries. 

If Mamma Mia! The Musical is not to be missed, then Muriel’s Wedding, The Musical must not be missed even more.

Maggie McKenna and Justine Clarke
as Muriel and her mother Betty Heslop
in Muriel's Wedding - The Musical


Bosom Buddies
Theatre Club Luncheon
Coralie Wood Publicity
Guest Speakers: Nancye Hayes & Todd McKenney
Compered by Bill Stephens – Canberra City News
Bosom Buddies ACT Inc
Crowne Plaza Hotel 6 December

Report by Len Power

Coralie Wood, Canberra’s publicist extraordinaire, presented a Theatre Club luncheon at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Civic.  Part of the proceeds from the lunch went to ‘Bosom Buddies ACT Inc.’, the local charity that supports women living with breast cancer.

The lunch was compered by Canberra City News’s Bill Stephens.  Guest speakers at the lunch were theatre icons, Nancye Hayes and Todd McKenney who showed that they were indeed long-time bosom buddies with a fascinating talk about their joint theatre experiences.  Both very entertaining speakers, their stories about things going wrong on stage were hysterically funny.

Nancye Hayes started in the chorus of the first production of ‘My Fair Lady’ in Australia and got her big break in 1967 playing Charity Hope Valentine in the musical, ‘Sweet Charity’.  Since then she’s been in just about every musical of importance and continues to wow audiences with her fine performances.  Off stage, she’s very friendly, approachable and down-to-earth.  She’s even had a theatre named after her – the Hayes Theatre in Sydney.

Todd McKenney has been performing professionally since 1983 in shows such as ‘42nd Street’, ‘Singin’ In The Rain’ and ‘La Cage Aux Folles’.  He rose to fame in 1998 with his portrayal of Peter Allen in the highly successful Australian musical, ‘The Boy From Oz’.  He’s a really easy-going guy with a delightfully wicked sense of humour.

Nancye and Todd worked together in ‘42nd Street’, ‘Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks’ and the 2012 production of ‘Annie’.  In that one, along with Chloe Dallimore, they stopped the show with their performance of the song ‘Easy Street’.

During the luncheon, Nancye and Todd announced that they will be teaming up in 2018 to perform in a new autobiographical show called, coincidentally, ‘Bosom Buddies’.  After hearing some of their stories during lunch, this will be a show not to miss.  It will be at the Canberra Theatre Centre in May next year.

The stars finished up their talk with a very funny, personalized version of the song ‘You’re Getting To Be A Habit With Me’ from ‘42nd Street’.  It will be heard in their ‘Bosom Buddies’ show in 2018.

Oh, yes, and the buffet lunch at the Crowne Plaza gets a good review from me, too.  According to Todd McKenney, Nancye Hayes was up all night making the sandwiches!

Sunday, December 3, 2017


Music and Lyrics by Benny Andersson, Bjorn Ulvaeus, and songs by Stig Anderson
Book by Catherine Johnson
Directed by Garry Young – Choreographed by Tom Hodgson – Musical Supervision by Stephen Amos – Set Design by Linda Bewick – Costume design by Suzy Strout – Lighting Design by Gavan Swift – Sound Design by Michael Waters

Canberra Theatre, 30th November - 17th December 2017

Reviewed by Bill Stephens 

Mamma Mia! How Can I forget You?  It seemed like all Canberra was in party mode for the opening of t he Australian season of this brand new production of  “Mamma Mia”, and it wasn’t disappointed. In an unusual move, Producers Louise, Michael Coppel and Linda Bewick, decided to launch this new production in Canberra, prior to its National tour, and already the Canberra season is nearly sold out.

Alicia Gardiner ((Rosie) - Natalie O'Donnell (Donna) - Jayde Westaby (Tanya)

With fresh new set and costume designs, a good-looking, energetic cast, with Natalie O’Donnell, who played the bride-to-be Sophie in the original Australian production, now playing Sophie’s mother, Donna, “Mamma Mia” returns to the stage in a beautifully conceived production guaranteed to enchant a whole new generation who only know the show from the film.

One of the first Juke Box musicals, “Mamma Mia”, remains remarkable for the way familiar ABBA songs are seamlessly integrated into the storyline of a young bride-to- be, Sophie, who decides to invite three of her mother’s old flames to her wedding, in an effort to discover the identity of her father. These songs have been given fresh new arrangements by Stephen Amos, with overtures and entr’actes which literally lift you out of your seat.

An exuberant ensemble moment in "Mamma Mia !" 

Director Gary Young has tweaked the show slightly to give it an Australian flavour, and included some contemporary references. We now have Chris from Queanbeyan, and Bill from Batlow among the characters. He keeps a clear focus on each of the characters and how they fit into the story, and though the audience know every line of the ABBA songs, the way those lyrics fit so seamlessly into the storyline still surprises and charms, and the story feels even more captivating in Linda Bewick’s postcard pretty blue and white Greek taverna setting, and Suzy Strout’s supremely wearable and elegant costumes.

Sarah Morrison is a delightfully fresh young Sophie Sheridan, and her scenes with her mother, Donna, (Natalie O’Donnell), are affectingly played by both actors, especially the scene where Donna dresses Sophie for her wedding.

Sarah Morrison (Sophie) -Stephen May (Sky)

O’Donnell invests her character, single mum, Donna, with grit, determination, occasional exasperation, and disarming sexiness, while Jade Westaby and Alicia Gardiner both give scene-stealing performances as Donna’s gal-pals, Tanya and Rosie.

The male roles are less showy, but Ian Stenlake as the suave and charming Sam, Phillip Lowe as the lovable eccentric Harry, and Josef Ber as the confused travel writer, Bill, succeed in convincing the audience of the difficulty of Donna’s predicament, and thankfully, all sing superbly. 

Phillip Lowe (Harry) - Ian Stenlake (Sam) - Josef Ber (Bill)
"Mamma Mia !"
Stephen Mahy as Sophie’s fiancé, Sky, and Sam Hooper and Alex Gibson-Giorgio as his mates, Pepper and Eddie, and Monique Salle’ and Jessica Di Costa as Sophie’s friends, Ali and Lisa, all offer strongly etched characterisations, as well as dance up a storm in the ensemble numbers for which Tom Hodgson has devised some sensational choreography with plenty of cheeky dance moves to snaffle for your next party. 
But why wait for a party?  “Mamma Mia” is a party. A party which received a rapturous reception at its Australian premiere. Don’t miss out.

Alicia Gardiner (Rosie)- Natalie O"Donnell (Donna) - Jayde Westaby (Tanya)
and Ensemble
Following its Canberra season "Mamma Mia !" tours to Brisbane (26th December - 4th February 2018) - Sydney (11th February - 8th April, 2018) - Perth (15th May - 3rd June, 2018)
Melbourne from July 2018 - Adelaide from October, 2018. 

                            Photos: James Morgan and Brew Bevan

This review first published in the digital edition of CITY NEWS on 1st December 2017

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Tristan: A Song for a Superior Man

Raoul Craemer
Photo by Andrew Sikorski
Tristan: A Song for the Superior Man.  Written and Directed by Chenoeh Miller.  Little Dove Theatre Art at Ralph Wilson Theatre, Gorman House Arts Centre, Canberra, December 1-3, 2017.

Co-written and performed by Chris Endrey, Nick Delatovic, Oliver Levi-Malouf, Raoul Craemer and Erica Field.

Composition and Sound Design by Dane Alexander; Dance Choreography by Alison Plevey and Oliver Levi-Malouf; Technical Design and Operation by Ben Atkinson – The Sound Workshop; Technical Support by Gregor Murray and Shannon Jackson.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
December 2

This work, starting from the idea of ‘hero’, explores the breakdown of a man’s mental stability in the face of expectations of being a ‘man’, and the possibility of his rebuilding himself as a ‘good man’.  Though I am not a pop song aficionado, I think Bonnie Tyler’s Holding Out For A Hero was the theme for the first dance piece, which stirred the pot by being energetically danced by a figure dressed and made up convincingly as a female, later to be surprisingly revealed as a male.

The theatrical form is uncompromisingly expressionist.  Raoul Craemer presents the ‘Tristan’ model, pumping iron as we enter the theatre, and when exhausted, describes his breakdown as literally burning from his feet up to his heart, in a room beset by thunder and rain, waiting for the roof to fall in, and the rainwater to douse and save him.  But the roof, he tells us before fading into the dark upstage, falls in too late.

Then, for about an hour, we follow bits and pieces of men’s stories of their experiences of becoming and being ‘men’, based – we are told – on responses to a survey asking a wide range of men in our community questions such as have you ever been violent, or been the object of violence, and others about their feelings about themselves and their relationships.  In developing the work from the original script by Chenoeh Miller, the performers incorporated some of their own experiences as well.

Much of the work is expressed in semi-dance movement, using background recorded songs, and a lengthy recording of a woman speaking about the process of trying to understand and articulate the contrasting roles of women and men; while Erica Field, dressed as a woman, is on stage as a visual focus for us as we listen to the hesitancies and difficulties in the woman’s explanation.

Finally, Craemer reappears, and describes his growth and reconstruction as a new ‘Tristan’.  He then goes to each of the figures at that point prostrate on the floor and revives them, including the woman dressed in male attire, with care, respect, and indications of love.

There is also an appropriate degree of humour in the piece, as men appear from behind doors with unexpected anecdotes to lighten the intensity of the struggle to understand their role as ‘men’.

I’ve used quote marks here to emphasise that Tristan: A Song for the Superior Man is about the concept of manhood, and how it might be interpreted.  Though so much concerned with ideas, and therefore properly using expressionism as its style, some sections effectively stir our emotions – especially the early scene of conflict in a marriage imposed on both the man and the woman by unintended pregnancy; and again in the feeling of hope in Raoul Craemer’s performance of the final scene.

Though I could not class this work as thoroughly polished, in the sense that it needs a clearer and stronger through-line as a piece of theatre, the individual performances, choreography and the exploratory concept make the show worthwhile viewing.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Mamma Mia!

Stephen Mahy and Sarah Morrison
as Sky and Sophie
Photo by Peter Brew-Bevan
Mamma Mia! by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, with some songs by Stig Anderson.  Book by Catherine Johnson from an original conception by Judy Craymer.

Canberra Theatre Centre, November 24 – December 17.  Gala Opening November 30, 2017.

Director – Gary Young; Choreographer – Tom Dogson; Musical Supervisor – Stephen Amos; Set Design – Linda Bewick; Costume Design – Suzy Strout; Lighting Design – Gavan Swift – Sound Design – Michael Waters

Principal Cast (in order of speaking)
Sophie Sheridan – Sarah Morrison; Ali – Monique Sallé; Lisa – Jessica di Costa; Tanya – Jayde Westaby; Rosie – Alicia Gardiner; Donna Sheridan – Natalie O’Donnell; Sky – Stephen Mahy; Pepper – Sam Hooper; Eddie – Alex Gibson-Georgio; Harry Bright – Phillip Lowe; Bill Austin – Josef Ber; Sam Carmichael – Ian Stenlake; Father Alexandrios – Stephen Anderson

with an 18-strong chorus ensemble.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
November 30

There are many ways to judge a musical.  Audience participation last night would have meant dancing in the aisles, if only there had been room.  We appreciatively applauded after every song-and-dance number – except, of course, as Donna retreated from Sam’s advances in Winner Takes All.  I think the full complement of 1239 bums on seats stood up, jigged in time, clapped, screamed, whistled and waved arms about for the encores in perhaps the most enthusiastic response from traditionally cynical Canberrans that I can remember.

But I think there’s more to Mamma Mia! than a mere immediate enthusiasm.  The program has a neat history of “The Show that Won Over the World” by Dewynters London asking, “So why has the show struck such a chord with audiences around the world?”  But the obvious answers, offered by Judy Craymer, of “feel good factor”, audiences who “recognise themselves in the characters”, and ABBA’s music are not enough to explain the response of Canberra’s audience – equally mixed across the board from young to old, from those who would be regulars to Bell Shakespeare to young clubbers I might see at Comedy Club venues.

Mamma Mia! has become a kind of “popular opera”, which is different from traditional operas and the general run of musicals, written by a composer (or two) and a librettist.  Weaving a story out of a selection of previously written and very well-known songs places this work into a slot in what is nowadays a world-wide culture.  After all even Australia has presented songs in the Eurovision Song extravaganza, which was always widely multicultural and is likely to expand its reach in future even unto Asia, I understand.

For this Craymer, Catherine Johnson and, of course, the composer Andersson and lyricists Ulvaeus and Anderson should be recognised for making an original contribution.  Of course, the further question might be, for how long will it remain as a leader in its “musical” field?  This is Mamma Mia!’s second tour of Australia (previously 16 years ago in 2001), with a brand new thoroughly Australian design and production team – a good sign for a continuing life.

Could it last a hundred, or even four hundred years?  Well, it might.  I’ll suggest two comparisons, which you may find unexpected.

Alicia Gardiner, Natalie O'Donnell, Jayde Westaby
as Rosie, Donna Sheridan, Tanya
in Mamma Mia!
Photo by James Morgan

Ian Stenlake, Phillip Lowe, Jose Ber
as Sam Carmichael, Harry Bright, Bill Austin
in Mamma Mia!
Photo by James Morgan

First, there are Shakespeare’s romantic comedies.  What a shame he never thought of a daughter searching for her three possible fathers, inviting them without her mother knowing, and ending up with her mother “giving her away” in a conclusion with four marriages: the daughter to her lover; her mother to one possible father, Sam; Bill marrying Rosie; and the other possible father, Harry, marrying a man called Lawrence!

Just as William at the end of the 16th Century played with and queried the role of women in personal, economic and political life of his time, using humour, song and dance, so Mamma Mia! has a similar part to play at the end of the 20th Century.  Shakespeare gave us The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Measure for Measure, The Comedy of Errors, Much Ado About Nothing, Love’s Labour’s Lost, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It, All’s Well That Ends Well, The Taming of the Shrew, and even The Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night.  Mamma Mia! we might exclaim!

Many of Shakespeare’s plays have been made into operas, but one other opera takes up the economic and personal/political issues like Mamma Mia!, and has a parallel history concerning the impact of its music.  John Bell’s recent production of Carmen was especially significant for using the music to tell the woman’s story, rather than concentrating the audience on wallowing indulgently in the fascinating Spanish dance.  Bizet wrote the opera as a new form of social criticism in 1875, but untimely died as the 32nd performance ended, preventing him from objecting to later productions which became all about the music.

Watching Mamma Mia! I realised how many in the audience were focussed on ABBA’s songs, applauding after each like an opera audience applauds each aria.  But we cannot fail to see the point in Donna’s story, bringing up Sophie without needing any of the three men who might have been Sophie’s father.  Her recognition in the end of her love for Sam is clearly made a separate issue: so she can marry for love, but not for submission; and the same is true for Sophie in marrying Sky; with the added modern twist of Harry – just in time for the passing of the same-sex marriage law.

The third element of judgement must be about not just the standard of the acting, singing, dancing and band performances, but about how well the directing and design worked for the type of drama being presented.

This show was excellent on all counts.  The choreography was much more fascinating to watch than some I found on Youtube, and executed with tremendous energy and vivid life which made the show almost bounce off the stage.  The straight acting by Sarah Morrison, Natalie O’Donnell and the four men (the ‘fathers’ and Sky) was well done, including what can be problematic – the transitions from speaking to singing.  The engagement with the audience was never lost.  Then the comic acting by everyone was wonderfully done – deliberately overplayed to exactly the right degree, always with a certain ironic humour, which comes from being an Australian show, I think.

On the music side I had only one – actually two – brief moments of concern.  All the band’s work for the songs seemed to me to be spot on as I felt they should be to be consistent with the ABBA musicianship and style.  But the two overtures, apart from being far too loud (while levels during the show were mainly very good for clarity, only sometimes dominating the voices a bit); the overtures included harmonies which seemed to me to be out of tune with Benny Andersson’s orchestration.  On each occasion, I thought someone was trying to introduce a kind of imitation ‘modern’ or even ‘post-modern’ off-colour dissonance, even if only for a few bars. 

Maybe there was an idea of saying, the story of Donna is not all harmony and light, but I think that was done better by the songs themselves, and the overtures should have kept to their musical style.

That said (as everyone says nowadays), this production of Mamma Mia! is literally brilliant, visually and musically, from costumes, set and lighting designs through to precision dancing, terrifically varied athletic choreography and great timing in the acting and singing.

Not to be missed.


Book by Catherine Johnson
Originally conceived by Judy Craymer
Music and lyrics by Benny Andersson and Bjӧrn Ulvaeus
Directed by Gary Young
Produced by Michael Coppel, Louise Withers and Linda Bewick
Canberra Theatre to 17 December

Reviewed by Len Power 30 November 2017

Unless you’ve been living on a distant planet for years, you would know the phenomenon that is ‘Mamma Mia!’  This jukebox musical was written by British playwright Catherine Johnson, based on the songs of ABBA, composed by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus.  It first opened in London in 1999 and is still running there.  The show ran on Broadway for 5,773 performances.

This is the first time Canberra has seen a production of ‘Mamma Mia!’ and it’s been worth the wait.  This is a stunningly good production.  The Canberra Theatre Centre management is to be congratulated for obtaining the premiere of this production at the start of its national tour.

Natalie O’Donnell as the mother, Donna Sheridan, gives a strong characterization and sings the role brilliantly.  She stops the show with ‘The Winner Takes It All’.  As her daughter, Sophie Sheridan, Sarah Morrison is thoroughly believable as the young woman who yearns to find her father.  As the show progresses, she sings and dances her way into the audience’s hearts.  The trio of possible fathers played by Ian Stenlake, Phillip Lowe and Josef Ber are all excellent comedians with a sure sense of timing and they sing and dance very well, too.  There are delightful characterizations from the numerous other principal performers who all get their moment to shine.

The singing and dancing ensemble do a great job of appearing laid back and casual and all display distinctive characters.  They make it look easy but they’re probably the hardest working members of the show.  Their dancing of ‘Voulez-Vous’ at the end of the first act is a genuine showstopper.

Director, Gary Young, has given us a colourful show that succeeds on every level.  The set design by Linda Bewick is attractive and practical, nicely evoking a Greek island village location.  Costumes by Suzy Strout are vibrant and striking and Gavan Swift has produced a knockout lighting design.

The sound design by Michael Walters keeps the sound levels between musicians and singers just right and musical supervisor, Stephen Amos, achieves that distinctive and all-important ABBA sound.  The choreographer, Tom Hodgson, gives us breath-taking dances that are exciting and believable in the show’s context.

The audience were ecstatic by the end of the opening night of ‘Mamma Mia!’.  Don’t miss it!

Len Power’s reviews are also broadcast on Artsound FM 92.7’s ‘On Stage’ program on Mondays from 3.30pm and on ‘Artcetera’ from 9.00am on Saturdays.