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Mamma Mia
Encore Theatre Company
Princess Theatre

October 22nd, 2021

Usually, the Overture is lost on an audience. It is the moment when we settle into our seats, put our phones on silent, open our lollies or drinks and finish reading the program. However, this time the moment was different. There was an anticipation building, it began with the lighting and ended with a smoke machine filling the stage and making a glorious water like effect across the stage. But mostly it was the anticipation in the audience that the theatre was back and the team at Encore Theatre Company knew that and extracted every drop of excitement out of it.

It had been 804 days between Encore Theatre Company’s final performance of We Will Rock You and opening night of Mamma Mia; and over 5 YEARS since the last Encore production I saw (The Buddy Holly Story, 2016). In that time, not only has the world changed around us, but so has the state of the theatre and the maturity of Encore Theatre Company productions. Mamma Mia was on the verge of Opening Night in 2020, when its postponement was the moment the COVID19 pandemic got real. After two years in development, that opening night curtain finally rose to an energetic full house that ate up every inch of the wacky, charming and toe-tapping spectacle before them.

Personally, I’m not a big ABBA fan, however the use of their music in a Musical Theatre context makes total sense. Each song is awash with story and character which provides a wonderful capacity for a jukebox musical. The story is relatively straight forward; Sophie (Played by VCA Graduate Lisa Thomas) is getting married to Sky (Mason Waller). Having been raised by her single mother Donna (Denise Sam) her whole life, Sophie has never been aware of who her father really is. So, after reading her mother’s journal, she decides to invite the three potential men, Sam (Dean Cocker), Bill (Ross Marsden) and Harry (Matt Gower), to her wedding, offering her the perfect opportunity to ascertain the truth she has longed for. However, as the farce of the production ramps up, Sophie finds herself caught in a turbulent malaise; unsure which of the men may be her father, ending up with three potential suitors all planning to walk their “daughter” down the aisle the next day.

One thing that has always impressed me with Danny Gibson’s direction, is that he consistently realizes an effective use of Ensemble. Every segment’s impeccable drilling fit together coherently, from scenic transitions, to choreography, to small comedic moments throughout; which are effortless and clever. Mamma Mia was no exception to this, with quick and efficient scenic transitions and competent use of the full stage to manufacture a crowd of people (from one of Encore’s smaller casts). My favourite use of the ensemble, however, came in the few moments where their appearance enhanced the story, enabling the audience to witness the subtext and inner thoughts of the characters singing around them. Michele Withington’s choreography must be applauded in these moments creating a dynamic and interesting journey for the audience, rather than relying too heavily on the “Dance Troupe” prototype as is the case with a lot of Musical Theatre. Money, Money, Money; Dancing Queen (complete with a Greek chorus); and Under Attack stood out in this regard.

Denise Sam ascends the heights of Donna and soared with an exhilarating distinction. Initially, I felt she may have started a little flat-footed, yet as Donna’s anxiety exacerbated through the show, Denise's performance lifted along with it. The overwhelming disquiet she suffers in the face of the prospect of losing her daughter to marriage, emulated the pain she experienced with failing to recollect Sophie’s father and the grief affiliated with missed opportunities. Once it all comes together, Donna’s desperation culminates in a heart stopping crescendo as Denise Sam sensationally belts out The Winner Takes It All.

Lisa Thomas as Sophie was delightfully sincere and engrossing, using her comprehensive skillset to communicate an instinctive affinity with the audience. Lisa’s charisma helped cultivate chemistry between herself and every other member of the ensemble; whether it was sexual chemistry, paternal chemistry, or friendly chemistry; this elevated her performance as she had the audience eating out of the palm of her hand all night.

The attributes of the story and music in Mamma Mia lends itself to comedic farce, and there were some standout farcical performances among the supporting cast. Matt Gower’s Harry Bright, the neurotic bank man and last person that could possibly be Sophie’s Father; Ross Marsden as Bill Austin, the “Wild Wanderer”; and in particular Sinead Tracy, as Rosie, one of Donna’s “Dynamos”, shone with her impeccable comic timing, big energy and goofball demeanour that really hit the cheesiness it required. Watching Bill fumble over chairs in the church trying to get away from a disturbingly aggressive pursuant Rosie during Take a Chance on Me, was absolute comedy gold to witness.

However, with all good shows there are also moments that don’t quite line up and occasionally disrupt the course of the show. Whilst I must give special acclamation to the skill of the male ensemble to dance in Flippers and Wetsuits, (I struggle to simply walk in them); I felt that scene provided an unusual tone shift compared to the rest of the production. We slipped into an overtly sex fuelled sequence which seemed to diminish the charm and cheesiness of the show’s previous frivolity and become something sleazier. I felt it painted the men, and in particular Sky, into slimy characters that seemed to directly oppose how he was set up to be. This may be a fault of the script rather than the production, but unfortunately, I think it weakened what had been a reasonably fun and light-hearted farce.

My other qualm with the script was how it ended. Without giving it away for those people who, like me, have never seen Mamma Mia; but the anticipation that had been constructed throughout, seemed to fall flat with a resolution that seemed rushed, abrupt and underwhelming. Again, this is more so contributed to the script than Encore's production, who handled the final scene with compassion and subtlety.

Although there seemed to be a shortage of abounding energy in the cast which resulted in a slight lack of spark, (which I attributed mostly to opening night and the extra-long rehearsal period); Overall, the audience loved every moment of the delightfully cheesy, slightly tacky, but always engaging Mamma Mia. High class community theatre is back and breathing in Launceston after a long lay-off and I strongly encourage everyone to get along and support the local talent on stage.

Review By Matt Taylor

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