Gina Smukler (Donna) with the Mamma Mia! Cast\
Gina Smukler (Donna) with the Mamma Mia! Cast\
Image: Supplied

A friend of mine turned 60 a couple of years ago, when Covid-19 restrictions prevented her from marking the occasion in a suitable fashion. But recently she made up for that missed opportunity in some style, organising a belated 60th birthday weekend getaway with a multigenerational gang of family and friends — every member of the group a mensch, fully committed to honouring this special person, and to celebrating life in all its messy glory.

From the start it was clear that there was only one apt theme for such a gathering: it was to be a “Mamma Mia Dancing Queen Party”. The pop cultural status of Catherine Johnson and Judy Cramer’s jukebox musical has made Mamma Mia! shorthand not only for ABBA’s repertoire of songs but also for Greek island aesthetics and for high-spirited romantic comedy. You can’t bring a maudlin or cynical state of mind to a Mamma Mia event. Instead, you can bring a chaotic mélange of 1980s’ disco fashion and beachware. Dancing and singing are compulsory, but doing so rhythmically or in tune is entirely optional.

ABBA enthusiasm creates a broad and nonjudgmental church. But there is always some element of self-awareness; rarely is the dancing queen actually naive, the ingénue who is “young and sweet ... only 17”. More often than not, to embrace ABBA and the Mamma Mia! mood is to enact what Susan Sontag called “the victory of irony over tragedy”.

In her Notes on Camp, Sontag observed that camp as a performance can incorporate pathos and even excruciation, but that it will never allow tragedy to prevail. There is something of this in the joyful appreciation of ABBA. Despite cancer or divorce, bereavement or bankruptcy — in the face of depression and anxiety and sorrow — you can dance, you can jive, having the time of your life.

While “the whole point of camp is to dethrone the serious”, according to Sontag, there is nonetheless seriousness “in the degree of the artist’s involvement”. And this, arguably, is a good way of understanding what audiences experience when they watch Mamma Mia! The triple-threat brilliance of the musical performers (singing, dancing, acting) gives the impression of minimal effort and maximal fun, a deceptive lightness that allows the viewer to feel a reciprocal levity.

In the now-iconic film version, there are a few instances of the artist’s earnestness on display — that is to say, you can see that they are trying — and when this merges with a “serious” moment for the character being portrayed, the spell is broken. The less said about Pierce Brosnan atonally belting out SOS the better. Luckily this is quickly forgotten, and the numbers that really pack an emotional punch, like Slipping Through My Fingers and The Winner Takes It All, are in the capable (incomparable) hands of Meryl Streep. But this poignance is not the chief métier of Mamma Mia! Before long, we are back in comic mode.

In the stage production that is about to conclude its sold-out Cape Town run before moving to Johannesburg, an accomplished cast follows Streep’s rather than Brosnan’s example, carrying off a pleasing trick: there is no sign of the blood, sweat and tears that go into performance, and it is easy to accept the illusion of frivolity, harmony and easy resolution.

The female leads capture our sympathy and attention from the outset. SA musical veteran Gina Shmukler is a frazzled but graceful and ultimately dazzling Donna Sheridan, with Kiruna-Lind Devar as her winsome daughter and bride-to-be Sophie. Donna’s sidekicks, the “dynamos”, are a fabulous duo: Kate Normington as sassy Tanya and Ilse Klink as quirky Rosie.

Mamma Mia! is structured such that the men are primarily there to complement the more charismatic women, but Emmanuel Castis (Sam Carmichael), Matt Newman (Harry Bright) and Tiaan Rautenbach (Bill Austin) as Donna’s former lovers, and Gianluca Gironi as groom-to-be Sky, fill out their roles to make them more than mere foils.

Add in a strong ensemble, a multi-tiered (albeit slightly underutilised) set and an acclaimed creative team, and the almost inevitable result is “the wonder of a fairy tale”. Benny and Björn couldn’t ask for better.

Mamma Mia! is at the Teatro at Montecasino from April 13 to June 9.

This article was originally published in the Business Day. 

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