For those uninitiated to the Broadway hit and 2008 film adaptation which grossed over $1 billion NZD, here’s a quick run down. Sophie (Lily Moore) lives on a tiny island off the coast of Greece with her solo mum, Donna (Rachel McSweeney) who runs a Taverna on the island. Sophie is getting married to her beloved Sky (Macka Htay), and has decided to hunt down her father and ask him to give her away at the wedding. Upon finding her mother’s old diary she finds three potential dads and decides to invite them all to the wedding (unbeknownst to Donna) to try and uncover who her father is. Chaos ensues!
The cast all perform their roles admirably, and some of them are completely brilliant. This is a student production, but the occasional slip of an accent or vocal shake are the only tells in a very slick production.
I must make a couple of shout outs. McSweeney plays Donna with all the stress and depth required of a character who’s daughter is getting married and just invited three of ex-lovers without warning. McSweeney is able to capture the fun and rebellious essence of Donna while carrying the weight of all the drama going on around her with remarkable ease and authenticity. Her vocals are stellar, with The Winner Takes it All being an absolute highlight of the show. Meryl Streep, eat your heart out!
River Santner’s portrayal of Australian writer and potential dad Bill Austin, never misses a beat and gives excellent comic timing and Ameika Webster’s fun-loving Rosie provides an electric energy which brings Chicatita and Dancing Queen to life. A final special mention to Wiljo Faifai-Collins, who’s rambunctious toy boy Pepper is a charismatic crowd-favourite from start to finish.
Performance-wise the highlight of the show for me is the ensemble. They are absolutely bursting with energy and hit every mark to bring the fictional island of Kalokairi to life. Scene transitions seem to happen seamlessly before our eyes as we move from beachfront, to goathouse to wedding party in the blink of an eye. This is a testament to Director and Choreographer Leigh Evans as well as the professional performance of the whole chorus. There are undoubtedly absolute stars in this ensemble, and I can’t wait to see them get their own moments in the spotlight in years to come.
Speaking of Evans, the choreography in this production is blimmin' sublime! Dynamic, free-flowing and with a real sense of fun. Chorus members pop out from every entrance, knook and cranny of the Tapere Nui Stage really giving the sense that these background characters inhabit the world of the show. Frequent pop-culture nods in the choreo (Thriller, the worm, and a catalogue of iconic disco moves feature throughout) give the whole show a self-awareness and invite the audience in on the fun the cast are so clearly having.
Scott Maxim’s set is a fairly realistic Greek Taverna facade with working doors and windows which are used to great affect to facilitate reveals and surprises throughout. The detailing of step-style shelves are a sublime addition which both evoke the old brick feeling of a taverna building, and provide useful space for set dressing. The simple addition of candles and festoon lights provide an excellent base for the many night-time scenes in what is an otherwise bright and colourful show. Clever stuff, Mr Maxim!
The set being mostly white, also provides an excellent canvas for Michael Trigg’s sensational lighting design. Trigg effectively brings colour and texture to every moment of the show, without every overwhelming our senses. The lighting also assists in pulling our focus to just where it needs to be, which is all important in the larger group scenes which feature small dialogue exchanges while up to 30 performers fill the stage. Maxim’s canvas and Trigg’s palette give the students a brilliant base from which to shine, and they are lucky to have two of the city’s finest alongside and supporting them.
A final shoutout to Evans and Raureti Ormond who’s costumes are often the star of the moment in of themselves. The groomsmen's wetsuits during Lay All Your Love on Me and two different iterations of the “Donna and the Dynamo” jumpsuits give the production design some real X-factor.
Overall, Whitieria’s production of Mamma Mia! is an absolute blast! Energy, great tunes, stellar chorus and excellent design made for a truly fabulous night out. I find myself dancing and singing along for the whole 10-plus minute curtain call and wishing it would never end. To the students and staff of the musical theatre program, bravo! Keep up the great work. I’ll be back next year.
Mamma Mia! Is being staged at Te Auaha’s Tapere Nui until September 16th. More information and tickets can be found on Eventbrite.