‘Mamma Mia’ was winner.
Empire Theatre’s fun, flirty and funky production of ‘Mamma Mia!’ had audiences in fits of laughter with flashbacks of nostalgic richness. As the venue’s first major production in Toowoomba this year, the show has a winning combination of local talent, polished performance and flawless design aesthetics.
Written by two members of the infamous Swedish band, ‘Mamma Mia!’ combines ABBA’S greatest hits with a storyline filled with enough drama and comedy to please any theatre spectator. Set on a Greek island paradise, the plot follows young bride-to-be, Sophie Sheridan. On the eve of her wedding, Sophie’s desire to find out the identity of her father brings three men from her mother’s past back to a place they visited long ago.
For any group, the musical poses a challenging feat due to its complicated sets, enormous cast and crew, and technical precision. Mixed with the high expectations of the audience, and their love for the dynamic pop music, ‘Mamma Mia!’ is an ambitious choice for a major production. Despite its challenges, Empire Theatre has equipped a team of experts, who have successfully executed a performance with high production value and professional integrity.
‘Mamma Mia!’ exceeded in its overall presentation. With set pieces hired directly from other professional touring renditions, the production wowed and wooed audiences with its large-scale construction. Designed by Josh McIntosh, the two-level sets turned and twisted to create indoor hotel rooms and bedrooms, outside Greek settings and various building formations. Attention to detail was rampant in the facade – from traditional Greek decorations and colours to surprising features within the walls. Small crevasses within the set were also lit, creating a warm and homely feeling that extended far beyond the tangible construction. The set as a whole looked perfectly rustic and reflective of the greek architecture needed for the setting. At one point, while action played downstage, audiences got a glimpse of a ‘Nonna’ gardening and baking on one of the verandah levels. Doors and window-shutters would flash open, cast members would run up and down vine-riddled staircases and props hidden within the set were used effectively.
Another perfectly realised concept were the scenes by the water’s edge, where boardwalks joined across the large stage. A motorised tugboat moved among the fog onstage, crafting dream sequences and transporting audiences to a beachside waterfront. These elements transformed the production and consequently pushed the community show into the realms of the professional league. With such a large set on stage, scene changes could easily become clumsy, however, the ensemble and set crew made each transition seamless, allowing for the audience to be transported around the small island.
With direction by James Shaw, ‘Mamma Mia!’ captured the essence of the movie musical while adding its own flair into the mix Shaw’s careful blocking and superb casting allowed the show to deliver and exceed any preconceived expectations. To put it simply, this production was phenomenal. Shaw evidently paid homage to the movie during the scenes, in particular, the encore sequence where the leading men perform in lycra flashy costumes. It was these choices that made the show feel familiar and would have delighted ABBA fans. Shaw also worked the flow of the production, moving scenes with effortless transitions in music and blackout. While some moments may have felt less energetic at times, this came down to the emotional connection to characters and in no way reflected Shaw’s superb craftsmanship.
Lighting Design by Ben Hunt produced and perfectly reflected various times of the day, with a stunning Grecian sunset captivating audiences. The use of ripples, ombres and various LEDs really encapsulated the audience in this tropical world. Another state-of-the-art feature was the ‘cloud’ projection on the back wall, which felt like a 3D reflection. The proscenium lights were also used to build audience intrigue and the party-like atmosphere. The beginning of Act 2 was particularly spectacular as the audience was transported into Sophie’s dream sequence. Virtually every light in the theatre was implemented during this moment – all the way to the house lights, which dimmed and flickered as they created the world of Sophie’s nightmare. One technical issue of note was the spotlights, which at times, only managed to light up the performers faces and the audience lost their body performance. Furthermore, one spot seemed to be fainter than the other, making the actor less obvious to audience members.
Choreographer, Tess Hill, made great use of the space, using every inch of the stage during all the big numbers. The ensemble were enthusiastically committed, with sharp partner work and larger than life presence. Some outstanding moments included the work in ‘Gimmie, Gimme Gimme’ and ‘Voulez Vous’. Another fun number was ‘Does Your Mother Know’ where cast members danced around the beach in a boy versus girl like choreographic battle. A highlight was the men, from the youngest to the oldest in the cast, flexing their muscles and performing push-ups in rhythm.
Craig Renshaw’s Musical Direction was also spot-on, building tension with amazing pitch-perfect sound. The live band delivered the iconic ABBA riffs and tones, providing a grand backing for the performers. Sound Design by Steve Alexander filled the large 1500-seat theatre, although, at times, sound levels made the band slightly louder than singers. Overall, the score was loud and performed with precision, and even had audience members grooving in their seat.
In terms of performances, ‘Mamma Mia!’ was filled with dancing queens and super troupers. Sophie Volp played the title role of Sophie Sheridan, a young woman who tries to find her father so he can walk her down the aisle. Volp brought a beautiful innocence to the role, which allowed for an almost Disney princess-like rendition of the character. Her strong performance, despite her young age, was mature, heartfelt and should be praised.
As Sophie’s mother, Donna Sheridan, Diana Holt was a joy to watch, especially when her character found herself in a predicament with her child’s three potential fathers. Holt’s vocal tonality had a rock gruffness, which differed the role from usual performances. Despite this, she was able to add her own flair to the character, made famous by Meryl Streep. Holt was able to capture the essence of the carefree Donna with a varying and gut-wrenching performance.
As Donna’s Dynamo’s and best friends, Vicki Bravery (Tanya) and Gayle Dixon (Rosie) were absolutely fantastic and provided much of the comic relief. The combination of Bravery’s and Dixon’s physical comedy added to their contrasting character differences and provided delightfully nuanced and charismatic performances. Bravery was seductive and sexy with legs for days and embraced Tanya’s upper-class sentimentalities. On the other hand, Dixon was rough and charming, and her concluding song ‘Take a Chance on Me’ was an over-the-top hoot. Both women excellently represented each character’s charm.
Michael Escober (Sam Carmichael), Trent Sellars (Harry Bright) and Tristan James (Bill Austin) perfectly rounded out Sophie’s chorus of misfit father figures, and each was stereotypically different from the other. Escober’s great American accent, strong voice and charm perfectly embodied his somewhat chauvinistic character. At times, Escober could have explored more emotional vulnerability and connection both with his character’s journey and others on stage. A lot of his solo performances were played to the audience, rather than to those his character was interacting with onstage. That being said, Escober certainly delivered a vocally sublime performance.
Sellars brought an interesting take on the role, opting for a more anxious, nerdy and awkward portrayal of Harry Bright (aka Head-Banger). Combined with a flawless British accent, great comedic timing and stellar singing voice, Sellars’ interpretation was an audience favourite.
As the third potential father figure, James brought a new approach for his character, reconfiguring Bill Austin to reflect that of a true blue Australian. His successful comedic approach allowed for more side-splitting laughs than one could hope for. Changes to dialogue, which localised references, made the role even more relatable and memorable.
Sophie’s fiance, Sky, is a character who can easily become a little nondescript within the production. Generally known for his lady-charming charisma and naive nature, James Taylor did a commendable job of bringing the performance to life. Taylor’s relationship with his friends Pepper and Eddie (Joshua Ragnoni) was hilarious and energised. The group clearly had fantastic chemistry and repartee on stage. Unfortunately, the chemistry between Taylor and Volp was less well-formed. While there were tender moments of connection, the relationship lacked the sexual tension required of the two young lovers. Because of this, some key songs such as ‘Lay All Your Love On Me’ fell a little flat.
Other notable mentions included Nicholas Joy as the thirsty and older woman crazed Pepper, and Sophie Klienschmidt and Kate Hudson-James as the bubbly millennial best friends, Lisa and Ali respectively.
The remaining ensemble and backstage singers filled the sound and production, and should also be commended for their extremely professional input. Often setting the mood of the show, their amazing performance was clearly directed and well-executed.
Special credit should also go to Debra Nairn (Head of Wardrobe) for the amazing and authentic costuming styles. From the lycra outfits and platform shoes to the subtle hints of Greek’s blue and white colours in Sophie and Donna’s attire, choices made reflected each different character style.
Overall, ‘Mamma Mia’ had big production value. Take those massive components away and the show was, at its heart, top-notch community theatre. The sold-out season was a quality rendition of Benny Anderson and Bjorn Ulvaeus’ ABBA masterpiece! The infectious energy radiating from a larger than life cast was phenomenal and infectious. Starring some of Toowoomba’s promising stars, Empire Theatre’s ‘Mamma Mia!’ should not be missed. If anything, audience members will be left saying ‘Gimme, Gimme, Gimme’ more!
‘Mamma Mia’ performed at the Empire Theatre until Sunday, 15 March 2020. For more information about the venue and upcoming shows, visit their website.
Disclaimer: Cast / Production Members working on this show also work for Theatre Haus, but rest assured, we always take steps to ensure our reviews maintain their integrity and are free from bias.