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'Mamma Mia!': Wins and takes it all

Stanley Widianto

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Wed, September 5, 2018  /  08:52 am
'Mamma Mia!': Wins and takes it all

ABBA’s company: Mamma Mia! is playing in Jakarta until Sept. 9 at Teater Jakarta, Taman Ismail Marzuki arts center, in Jakarta. (Sorak Gemilang Entertainment/File)

The Visitors, the Swedish pop group ABBA’s last album before they disbanded in 1982, did not end an era.

Sadness and disquiet (both couples, Anni-Frid Lyngstad/Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus/Agnetha Fältskog, divorced around this period) undergird the music: The title track is a six-minute jittery romp, and cuts like “One of Us” or “When All Is Said and Done” deal with heartbreak.

That should have been the end of ABBA as we knew them in Sweden and elsewhere. They had already come out as the winner, and the winner takes all.

But ABBA lingered, like a worm stuck on our shame and pleasure.

Playwright Catherine Johnson wrote the jukebox musical Mamma Mia!, with Benny and Björn on board to slightly refashion more than 20 of their songs.

Premiering in West End, London (where it has remained to this day), in 1999, the musical was a hit. An international tour started in the early 2000s, visiting 38 countries and millions of audience members.

The musical, along with the legendary Gold greatest hits album and Australia (where ABBA’s fan base runs deep), has given ABBA’s music a place to soundtrack our present and future.

Now it is playing in Jakarta from Aug. 28 to Sept. 9 at Teater Jakarta, Taman Ismail Marzuki arts center. The musical ends the two-year drought of international musicals in Jakarta and Sorak Gemilang Entertainment (SGE) is to thank for it.

Like a great ABBA song, Mamma Mia! does not burden itself with incisive, self-serious themes. It commits to its warmth, silliness and emotionality. It is an unabashedly lively musical.

The musical numbers are exuberant — they brim with colors. The costumes can only be either too wacky or too plain. Conflicts end easily; love is professed with barely any trace of irony or shame. The audience can dance, the audience can jive, having the time of their lives.

Mamma Mia! tells the story of Sophie Sheridan (Lucy May Barker), who discovers her mother Donna Sheridan’s (Shona White) diary and figures out the identities of three of her possible fathers: Sam Carmichael (Tamlyn Henderson), Harry Bright (Daniel Crowder) and Bill Austin (Matthew Rutherford). Then she invites all three of them to her wedding, unbeknownst to her mother, with the hopes of discovering which one is her real father.

The flings between the three men and Donna go way back, 21 years before the events of Mamma Mia! She had been a free-spirited soul; hungry for new experiences but not impressionable. Sophie has always been curious, the “funny little girl”, even more so now that she stands a chance to find her real father.

Her fiancé, Sky (Phillip Ryan), would slice his world in half for her. On the Greek island of Kalokairi, nobody is really bad. If they make a mistake, well, there’s always a reason and why would they not own up to it?

A powerful undercurrent of Mamma Mia!’s story lies in Donna and Sophie’s relationship. Donna raises Sophie alone. Donna had never gotten married, yet her daughter will in a matter of days. Is it really important for Sophie to risk disappointment just to find her father, who has not heard from her for her whole life? It’s heartwarming stuff.

Donna’s performance of “Slipping Through My Fingers” is cutting in its moving honesty: She wonders aloud why her only daughter is getting married and, though it has been kind, time moves so fast.

The performances from the actors and actresses are wonderful. Barker injects Sophie’s child-like curiosity with emotional turmoil; Henderson’s 21-year remorse over his character’s deception is still deeply felt; Crowder and Rutherford are irresistibly jovial. Helen Anker’s Tanya and Nicky Swift’s Rosie, Donna’s best friends, are magnetic and hilarious.

Though I think the cast is uniformly competent, White’s shape-shifting performance — from anguished to jubilant (during “Chiquitita” and “Dancing Queen”), from resentful to valiant (during the show-stopping “The Winner Takes It All”) — as Donna is exquisite.

Which brings us to ABBA. Pick apart any of their songs and you might only find scattered puzzle pieces. My admiration of ABBA has always been that of nerdy curiosity: Why does the call-and-response thing in “Take a Chance on Me” feel so good despite playing a small role in the song? What makes the synth line in “Gimme Gimme Gimme (A Man After Midnight)” so instantly memorable?

With their songs, ABBA has inspired derision and praise, but neither really matter when you consider that a sequel to the movie that was based on the musical that was based on their songs was just released a month ago. They’re coming back in December 2018, with a digital tour to boot. Mamma Mia! is not a musical built upon our nostalgia of ABBA’s music. It wouldn’t have existed had they been forgotten with time.

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