I saw the legendary ABBA musical Mamma Mia! at its very first public preview back on March 23 1999. Since then, I’ve seen it in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Las Vegas and Auckland, as well as revisiting the London production at least half-a-dozen times. But I’ve not been back to watch it on stage since the movie version of the original came out in 2008.
This weekend, that flipped at last, when I finally caught up with the Australian production that’s been touring this year. It’s still a fantastic show, and the current cast is one of the best I’ve seen across those two decades. But what really struck me was how many changes had been made in the staging.
Every version I’ve seen until this year has used the choreography, blocking and set design from the original London production, including the very clever revolving stage. OK, Las Vegas cut corners by not having a rising and falling wharf (used during ‘I Have A Dream’ and ‘The Name Of The Game’), but otherwise it stayed the same.
But Mamma Mia! Australia 2018 dumps the revolve entirely, settling instead for a static set with a stage-right staircase and a lot more shuttered windows (as pictured below, though my position over-emphasises the wharf, which is only used for entrances and exits and Sophie’s posting of the letters).
That’s understandable: a set with fewer moving parts is cheaper to build, easier to rig and can go into a wider range of theatres. More evidence of cost-trimming? The ensemble is a little smaller than in previous productions.
However, those two modifications also results in alterations to the choreography and blocking, not all of which I enjoyed so much. I realise that I should just adapt to change and that no theatrical text is locked in stone. But hey, if I’ve seen a show this many times, I’m going to notice.
One inevitable and sensible change: the dialogue is delivered a lot faster, with fewer pauses for the audience to laugh. For instance, Rosie’s “It’s very Greek” line about Donna’s three potential fathers flies right by, where in the original staging there was a definite pause both before and after. That makes sense; you have to assume most of the audience has seen the movie and is familiar with these quips.
There are also changes that have been a feature of the production right from the start. Eddie’s apology when Pepper first flirts with Tania has always been localised (for Adelaide, it was “He’s from Elizabeth”, while Sam was also said to come from Burnside). Similarly, in Australia Donna has always said “housing commission” rather than “council flat” when explaining her past to Sophie during ‘Slipping Through My Fingers’. (That’s a plot point that clashes wildly with the storyline continuation in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, incidentally, but I digress.)
Those aside, these are the changes that jumped out at me (I’m sure there are others):
- During Donna’s dusting when the prospective dads first see her, she’s singing a snatch of ‘Ring Ring’. There was no song here when the production first started, and then ‘Fernando’ was used. I’m guessing maybe the latter has been dropped to avoid making people think of Cher. (It is never wrong to think of Cher, obviously.)
- The boat that comes on stage during ‘Lay All Your Love On Me’ is now branded ‘Abba Dabba Doo’, not ‘Waterloo’. Fair enough given ‘Waterloo’ is now part of the encore, a change that didn’t happen until some months into the original production.
- The boys don’t fully change into wetsuits during ‘Lay All Your Love On Me’. That has broader consequences than just less waxed flesh on stage; it also means that ‘Under Attack’ no longer has the surreal vision of everyone in fluorescent versions of the same costumes, instead playing up the gothic wedding aspect for the rest of the ensemble. I didn’t find this as visually effective.
- ‘The Name Of The Game’ is staged on the balcony, not on the wharf. This puts Sophie and Bill centre stage, but it’s notably less intimate and therefore, I think, less impactful.
- The sequence of Pepper exhausting himself during ‘Does Your Mother Know’ has been dropped, and the other boys don’t try and impress Tania either. I’ll forgive this because the current Pepper can do epic back flips, and because the current Eddie has been allowed to retain his chest hair.
- Donna and Sam lighting a joint is no longer the climax to ‘Our Last Summer’. Instead, it’s mimed briefly on the bed earlier in the song. There’s no picnic blanket sequence either.
- Rather than lighting candles, Rosie is rigging up a chain of lights when she has her “ding” moment at the start of ‘Take A Chance On Me’. That’s a good adjustment that works with the different set.
- Donna doesn’t change into a wedding dress or veil prior to marrying Sam.
- One of my favourite bits of choreography, the double-tapping heels during the final two reprises of the verse in ‘I Do I Do I Do I Do I Do’, has been dumped in favour of more Greek-inspired line dancing.
- Bill sobs manically when Sophie departs and has to be comforted by Harry. This jokey interlude heavily undermines what’s supposed to be an emotional moment (I’m wondering if it was inserted to reflect Bill’s crying sequence in the second movie).
And a final point: the boas used by the ladies during “Dancing Queen” left large feathers all over the stage. The lack of a revolve meant these stayed on stage for the entire first act, and were very visible from my second row seat. But no-one bothered to sweep them up during the interlude either, so they remained visible all the way through. No excuse for that.