Thursday 17 May 2018

Mamma Mia! is yet another Valerie Easton marvel !
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights : The expression "jukebox musical" didn't originate with the show Mamma Mia! but well it might have. Usually a stage musical wrested from Hit Parade charts involves a storyline that weaves a singer or group's tunes into the plot. In the case of Mamma Mia!, meanwhile, the storyline is but loosely and almost off-handedly sewn into see-through cloth. 

In truth it's primarily a concert of the ABBA tunes that escaped from Sweden in the mid-70's and infected the world joyously. ABBA would dominate not only the radiowaves but every karaoke bar from here to Timbuktu for almost ten years.

No question "Knowing Me, Knowing You", "Waterloo", "SOS" and "Dancin' Queen" are earworms not even a sluice of RoundUp could ever extinguish. If, that is, you grew up on those tunes. If you didn't, you might find the songs catchy, but the Catherine Johnson book written to stitch ABBA's pop hits into a musical won't likely make it to the top of your list of shows with the best dramatic arc. Still, no matter. Not in the least.

Teen rocker friends Rose (Cathy Wilmot), left, and Tanya (Irene Karas Loeper), right, try to cheer up disconsolate mom Stephanie Roth (Donna Sheridan) who wants to wave 20-year-old out-of-wedlock daughter Sophie off marrying so early in life.     
Photo credit : David Cooper
How it's all put together : Of Broadway's opening at the Winter Garden in 2001, Clive Barnes exulted that the show "flies as tuneful as a lark and as smart as a cuckoo". The story starts a couple decades back. An American saloon singer named Donna Sheridan (Stephanie Roth) works on the Greek mainland but is having a ball making whoopee with young US and Oz and UK vacationers on a small off-shore island. She gets preggers by one of them : entree daughter Sophie (Michelle Bardach).

Feisty and independent, Donna stays on her hide-away island and opens up a taverna. She raises Sophie as a single mom after her holidaying hook-ups go home. The inevitable settle-down of families and careers await them when they sober up. 

Twenty years hence Sophie has met the dashing young Sky (Stuart Barkley), and they are eager to marry. But Sophie wants the dad she's never met to walk her down the aisle. After a sneak into Mom's diary out of a musty desk drawer, she learns of three men mom dated serially back in the Summer of '79. Posing as Donna, Sophie writes each of the erstwhile paramours and invites them to come to her wedding -- certain she'd figure out which one was her DNA match.

That's about the limit of the cuckoo's smarts here. The rest is just plain fun with a wacky coincidental Billy Bard-like surprise climax where all's well that ends well.

Fun, sport & amusement as well as the usual hot-&-horny girl-chase pursuits are what these men are all about on stag nite on a remote Greek island.
Photo credit : David Cooper
What the show bring to the stage : The story squeezes itself into the original ABBA tunes much like the fat lady squeezes herself into a corset to belt out her breathless arias. There's mama / daughter snits plus reconciliation; historical ex-lover grudges and ambiguities; an old femme rock trio gang called Donna's Dynamos who can still whoop it up musically; and, finally, a 3-song encore so the audience can bust its pipes in a karaoke singalong in whatever key you want that's stand-up hand-clappy fun.

Production values that enhance the show : There is not one aspect of this show that didn't delight 100%. Probably most compelling, as the pictures show, were Alison Green's costumes. From beachwear to tourist togs to outrageous! 70's disco outfits, MM! delights the eye every second. David Roberts, as usual, fashions a clever but simple set on sleds that slide effortlessly between Donna's taverna cafe and her guest rooms, all of it just right glaring Greek white with blue accents. Lighting isolation of individuals and duets and whole scenes by Robert Sondergaard made the Stanley's 90-foot proscenium an up-close-&-personal space the night long. 

Then there's the music. Ken Cormier's orchestra, familiar names all, were once again more than fully equal to their task. Shout-outs due to Andreas Schuld on guitars : his take on "What's The Name of the Game?" surely is a distant cousin, musically, of J.C. Superstar favourite : "I Don't Know How To Love Him". Martin Fisk underscored the ensemble throughout with supple-wristed drumming and percussion of first order.

Performance pin-spots : Of the 20 singer / actor / dancers on stage, this was as craftily-selected and hand-picked an ensemble by Director and Choreographer Valerie Easton as could be imagined or hoped-for. She took the talent she wanted and obviously worked them to death executing her dance routines, her blocking, her meticulously-timed stage business and facial jibes. Vancouver is so fortunate to have her NYC Broadway-level imagination and adroitness and ingenuity to marvel at and immerse ourselves in. 

Four songs particularly jumped out at me in Row 2 : the first "Dancing' Queen" sequence in the upstairs room; "Voulez-Vous", "Under Attack" and "Does Your Mother Know" -- these last three totally unknown to me before tonight. These are dance routines to knock your sox off.

The stag-party gang (picture #2 above) doing their diving flippers dance bit was hi-octane Valerie Easton superbly executed by the troupe. Shannon Hanbury as Ali and her wedding bridesmaid partner Jennifer Lynch as Lisa were full-on full-in in their dance routines, as was Cathy Wilmot as the coquettish ex-Dynamo Rosie -- a cross between Rosie the Riveter and Roseanne Barr. Oh what fun from all. 

Voices. My goodness. Stephanie Roth, Welcome! to Vancouver. As Donna this is a voice and a nuance and an engagement to be reckoned with. Her "Winner Takes All" duet with Michael Torontow was pure delight, as was his alt-ballad version of "Knowing Me, Knowing You" sung with Michelle Bardach as Sophie.

Not a weak or marginal contributor anywhere. Kudos! to the entire crew for their note-perfect verve and snap. 

 Sugary rock 70's Swede-style is what's on display in yet another Valerie Easton crisply staged & blocked & choreographed concert of ABBA tunes set on a Greek Isle where perpetual unemployment and national bankruptcy woes give way to whimsy and fun. 
Photo credit : David Cooper
Who gonna like : This show is vintage Arts Club Theatre summer fare and a wholly fitting exit-stage-right for outgoing Artistic Director Bill Millerd. Above, the word "joyous" was used to describe ABBA's grab on tunes and beat and charm and fun back in the 70's. 

To re-live such whimsy in 2018 when, politically, there's a shadow over the world's sun many days is refreshing and rejuvenating and reassuring : you can't escape the feel-good vibe and rush and sex-appeal of this show. Don't even try. Just go! Three months until final curtain but tickets won't last long I have no doubt.

Particulars : Original Theatrical Production (1998) : Music and lyrics by ABBA front-men Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, assisted on some songs by Stig Anderson. Book by Catherine Johnson. Produced by Arts Club Theatre at its Stanley stage, Granville at 11th. On until August 12, 2018. Tickets & schedule information by phone at 604.687.1644 or Run-time two-and-a-half hours, including intermission.

Production teamDirector & Choreographer Valerie Easton.  Musical Director Ken Cormier.  Associate Musical Director Sasha Niechoda. Set Designer David Roberts.  Costume Designer Alison Green.  Lighting Designer Robert Sondergaard.  Sound Designer Bradley Danyluk.  Stage Manager Pamela Jakobs.  Assistant Stage Manager April Starr Land.  Apprentice Stage Manager Tanya Schwaerzle.

Orchestra :  Ken Cormier (Director; Keyboard).  Sasha Niechoda (Keyboards).  MIchael Creber (Keyboards).  Angus Kellett (Keyboards).  Andreas Schuld (Guitars). Martin Fisk (Drums, Percussion).

Performers :  Paul Almeida (Pepper).  Michelle Bardach (Sophie Sheridan).  Stuart Barkley (Sky).  Oliverrt Castillo (Eddie).  Shannon Hanbury (Ali).  Jay Hindle (Harry Bright).  Warren Kimmel (Bill Austin).  Irene Karas Loeper (Tanya).  Jennifer Lynch (Lisa).  Stephanie Roth (Donna Sheridan).  Michael Torontow (Sam Carmichael).  Cathy Wilmot (Rose). 

Ensemble :  Sierra Brewerton.  Jarret Cody.  David Cohen.  Frankie Cottrell.  Maria Fernandes.  Julio Fuentes.  Brianne Loops.  Emily Machete.


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