‘Mamma Mia’ was bedazzled.
The super trooper lights certainly found us at The Star Gold Coast for the opening night of Matt Ward Entertainment’s ‘Mamma Mia’. Bedazzled costumes, flashy lights, and a pumping band created a sparkly production that had audiences singing along to the classic ABBA tunes that everyone knows and loves.
For the musical that needs no introduction, ‘Mamma Mia’ follows 20-year-old Sophie and Donna Sheridan as they prepare for Sophie’s big white Greek wedding. The situation becomes significantly more complex when Sophie finds her mother’s old diary and invites all three of Donna’s past lovers to the island for her wedding. As Bill, Harry and Sam arrive, Sophie begins trying to figure out which of the motley bunch is her father, all the while avoiding her mother. Set against a tapestry of hit ABBA songs, ‘Mamma Mia’ has quickly become a cult classic and one that perfectly fits with the glitz and glamour of the Gold Coast.
From the moment audiences walked into The Star Gold Coast, there was a clear strategy behind the aesthetic for Matt Ward Entertainment’s production, and this design precision continued throughout the entire show. Lighting design by Wesley Bluff had LED strips encircling windows of the set, as well as the archway on stage, as people filed into the theatre. This, coupled with vibrant coloured lighting choices, helped bring the production into 2021 and punctuated the show with energy to match the action. Scene work generally took place under a plain stage wash, which was perfectly juxtaposed by the vibrant design as soon as an ABBA song started to ramp up, with spotlights focusing attention on singers. Cues were nailed, transitions were tight and the design was sublime. Sound design by John Taylor was equally effective with consistent levels and a crisp sound that allowed the entire cast to be heard. At times, some singers lacked the punch of other cast members, however, only so much could be rectified from the sound desk.
Costumes, hair and makeup brought all the glitz, glam and pizazz expected of both the Gold Coast and a production of ‘Mamma Mia’. Costume designer, Jess Hanson, created a modern and chic look that showed off each character’s personality and became a story-telling element in its own right. Bringing the production further into 2021, Sophie’s hen’s party was a particular costume smorgasbord of fabulousness! Every female cast member was kitted out in bedazzled dresses, creating a stage of moving disco balls. Just as it couldn’t get any more iconically ABBA, the dynamos stepped out in their full glory to a cheering audience. For a show that relies heavily on fashion, Hanson did an exemplary job and more than met the demand. Hair, makeup and wigs, led by Lidiya Kaplun and assisted by Jake Pafumi, perfectly complemented Hanson’s design. Since the show is set in the present day, the hair and makeup were similarly modern, with enough pop to stand out on the large stage.
Set design by Adam Gardnir was an absolute hero within the production. Donna’s island hotel was created in its classic style, with Grecian-inspired white and blue walls. Majestically, the whole set was then easily spun on its axis to reveal a bedroom set on the back. This side used warmer yellow and orange tones to create differentiation between the two spaces. Two small thrusts were constructed at the front of the stage to represent either side of the pier, and bollards were placed along the front of the stage, which were frequently used within the choreography. While it was good to see a new take on the pier construction, some moments didn’t entirely translate. The well-known flipper number ‘Lay All Your Love on Me’ lost a bit of its punch with this particular design choice. The male ensemble briefly implemented the rotating bollards, however, hardly set foot on the pier. Choreography by Joseph Simons seemed slightly hampered at this moment, lacking levels and the dynamism that has come with previous ‘Mamma Mia’ productions.
It is no easy task to tackle a musical so well-loved, but director, Tim Hill, and assistant, Tess Hill, handled the challenge well. Hill facilitated honest and meaningful connections between characters and produced a good flow between scenes. Ensemble interaction and movement was particularly captivating and Hill created a beautiful tapestry that served as a basis for many scenes. Aurélie Roque and Stephen Hirst were hilariously woven into the ensemble work. With Roque covering the dynamos and Hirst covering all three dads, their ensemble tracks were slightly more minimal. However, both milked their stage time with clear skill, proving there are no small parts on stage.
Working with a lead cast of mixed stage experience certainly showed. Scenes such as ‘Does Your Mother Know’, ‘Dancing Queen’ and ‘Lay All Your Love on Me’ had moments of low energy and confidence, and certain dialogue moments ]lacked pace and precision; this may improve as the run continues.
Choreography by Joseph Simons and assistant, Tess Hill, was dynamic and energised. With a wildly talented ensemble, Simons’ work sparkled on stage and delivered the youthful vitality synonymous with ‘Mamma Mia’. Dancers Ryley Shaw and Carla Doyle were absolute standouts. With perfect lines, flawless execution and stage presence to boot, both cast members brought Simons’ choreography to a new level and were engaging throughout the production.
Musical director, Kuki Tipoki, creates magic with whatever he touches and ‘Mamma Mia’ was no exception. Tipoki led the iconic music of the production with adept skill, creating a balanced band and cast, which allowed the classic ABBA melodies and harmonies to soar.
Casting within Matt Ward Entertainment’s production was a little hit and miss, with a conglomeration of performances that could easily belong on any Broadway stage and others that lacked the polish and skill for a production of this size. Information presented in the show program suggests a number of cast members may have been chosen for their influencer base and, while it is important to get bums on seats, it was disheartening that after a year and a half of turmoil within the arts industry, more theatre-dedicated or experienced performers were not placed in roles.
It is impossible to fault Jayde Westaby’s performance of Donna, which could have translated to the professional stage or screen around the world. Westaby’s rendition of ‘The Winner Takes it All’ was the vocal standout of the night, delivered with perfect emotional connection that flowed through her physicality and her impeccable vocals. It is worthwhile seeing this production for Westaby’s performance alone.
Right by Donna’s side were her trusty friends, Tanya, played by radio personality, Emily Jade O’Keeffe, and Rosie, played by Leah Howard. O’Keeffe played the feisty Tanya with conviction and, despite some fumbled lines and obvious nerves, she delivered a good performance. Bringing a new interpretation of Rosie to the stage, Howard showed her experience with her dry sense of humour and fantastic vocals.
The three fathers brought their own sparkle to the table, delivering characters that were both lovable and individual. Sean Mulligan as the stoic Sam showed off his West End vocal chops while delivering sizzling chemistry with Westaby. Sandro Colarelli as Bill was positively hilarious in his delivery of the bumbling adventurer. His characterisation oozed from every fibre of his being, delivering a comedic but equally believable performance. Finally, James Shaw gave audiences an endearing Headbanger Harry. It was a trio of strong performances that gave the show nuance.
As the young lovers, Madeline Grice as Sophie and Lakota Johnson as Sky delivered good performances for their debut production. Grice was a sweet and wholesome Sophie. Her vocals were clear and bell-like, however, she encountered some wobbles and transition issues between her chest and head voice. Just starting out on her theatrical journey, Grice clearly has dedication and will undoubtedly grow as she receives further training. Johnson similarly lacked experience as Sky and ‘Lay All Your Love on Me’ needed some further finessing to sit better alongside the high standard of other performers. It would have been nice to see him fully transform into the character and experiment with more sensitivity in his delivery.
Despite some forgivable shortcomings, the atmosphere and end product of Matt Ward Entertainment’s ‘Mamma Mia’ was electric. With confetti cannons, a crowd on their feet and ABBA moves from the cast and audience alike, people left ‘Mamma Mia’ with a happy heart, singing ‘Waterloo’ all the way home.
‘Mamma Mia’ performs until Sunday, 11 July at The Star Gold Coast. For more information visit the Mamma Mia website.
Photography by Kenn Santos – Pif Productions