The 2016 Charlottetown Festival opened with the resounding echoes of some of the best-loved and most popular song-and-dance music of the 70s in the musical play Mamma Mia! by Catherine Johnson with music and lyrics by Benny Anderson and Bjorn Ulvaeus—both original musicians with Abba, and some songs by Stig Anderson. The stage play debuted in 1999 and a movie, starring Meryl Streep and Amanda Seyfried as the mother-daughter leads with Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, and Stellan Skarsgård as the three dads. Being very familiar with the movie as well as the songs of Abba, I had high expectations as well as mixed feelings about seeing the stage play, feelings that were, unfortunately, not alleviated by the television ads that did not strike me as particularly captivating. Still, I love a good performance and set off determined to enjoy myself.
What Artistic Director Adam Brazier, Musical Director Bob Foster, and Choreographer Kerry Gage put together for this year’s festival was stage-worthy and filled with ribaldry that had the audience rolling in laughter. Needless to say, the music had the audience tapping, nodding, and even singing along on occasion. I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by Eliza Jane Scott in the role of Donna, the mother who raised her daughter single-handedly on a Greek island in an inn built after the design of the love of her life whom she believed had left her the year before her daughter, Sophie, was born. The audience was literally floored by her powerful and winning rendition of “The Winner Takes It All”—probably her best song of the evening. No stranger to the Festival, Réjean Cournoyer with his easily recognizable powerful baritone brought both humour and class to the role of Sam, besting Pierce Brosnan in the singing parts. As Sophie, Katie Kerr sang her heart out, winning the hearts of her three dads and the whole audience as well. Jan Alexandra Smith and Nicola Dawn Brook had some great comical moments as Donna’s best friends and former backup singers, while Stephen Guy-McGrath and Cameron MacDuffee held their own as Sophie’s two other possible dads. Cory Sincennes’s elegant and extremely flexible set design was complemented by the sensational lighting design by Michael Walton, that brought me back to the disco era, complete with smoke effects.
I have to say I miss theatre when actors were not individually miked and being heard depended on projection and excellent theatre acoustics, because one of the things that detracted from complete enjoyment was the uneven quality of voices against music, voices occasionally overlapping over two individual mikes, or even voices not being picked up by the mikes. While the disco era and dance clubs do seem to believe that the louder the music the better, it isn’t always the case in theatre, because when live band music on amplifiers is picked up by mikes, it becomes so much louder and drowns out the performers’ voices. Another thing I did not really enjoy were a couple of sharp tinny voices rising above all the rest. I also felt Sophie’s voice was occasionally too whiny, often nasal, and sounded much like a very spoiled kid. I probably wouldn’t have really minded it, but because her mike volume seemed set on high, it did not make my eardrums too happy. As for some of Sam’s Saturday-Night-Fever-ish poses in his SOS duet with Donna, I thought he’d be better off without them. The ensemble, on the other hand, was fabulous, and the boys, especially, were bursting with energy. I will never never forget their skin-diving dance routine! Kerry Gage has outdone herself, introducing some of the liveliest, funkiest choreography, worthy of Broadway and West End, I have seen on the Homburg stage.