Mamma Mia! is canon of musical comedies, rocket-fueled by sheer thrum and pulse of toe-tapping, sing-along-tempting ABBA. It’s fun. Whether it’s Sophie’s impossible goal to bring together three men, any of whom could be her biological father — strangers Sam, Bill, and Harry — the idyllic Greek island setting, or any of the flamboyant supporting characters, this is a fun musical. And above all else, beyond its foibles, the Victoria College Drama Society’s (VCDS) production of Mamma Mia! was fun in turn.
VCDS’ production, which ran from March 7–9 at the Isabel Bader Theatre, was directed by Ronan Mallovy. On March 9, the theatre was packed with the usual audience composition of parents, friends, and theatre fans — likely jealous that they weren’t themselves members of the chorus. The audience’s tone was upbeat as the musical began slightly late, and there were occasional cheers and shouts as fan favourites and friends took to the stage.
The production was largely carried by a few standout performances. Lisean Henry brought a palpable vibrancy and momentum to her performance as Donna, Sophie’s fiercely independent mother and former lover of her three potential fathers. Alexandra Palma as the seductive, vain, and reliably lively Tanya had an unmistakable energy and stage presence that proved a nice foil to the performances of Lisean Henry and Elizabeth So, who played Donna’s other friend Rosie.
Gianni Sallese, a familiar face in campus theatre, played one of Sophie’s potential fathers, Sam Carmichael. His recognizable physical presence and movement, as well as natural humour, was on full display. Kody McCann (Bill Anderson) and Leo Morgenstern (Harry Bright) were also excellent additions to the named cast. The chemistry between the three fathers was amusing and they maintained high energy throughout their time on stage.
Special mention must also go to Carter Holmes as Pepper, staff member at the small hotel Donna owns. He brought a spring and comedy to the stage that managed to stitch together the scenes we all wished would hurry up a bit until the next big number.
The music direction, led by Emma Wallace, kept the tempo of the show moving along at pace and brought a swollen sound in all the right places for the big numbers. The tight proximity of the band to the actors on stage, at a close stage left, added to the casual tone of the performance generally.
However, while the set design was on theme and the fly-set window panes and plants were a nice touch, the cast’s interaction with the set pieces was lacking overall. When they did interact heavily with the set, there was a sense of clumping and some issues with voice projection in the conversational elements of the musical. In the more dramatic scenes, there was little interaction with the set at all, and the space taken up by the set could have been better used by the well-choreographed cast.
In addition, perhaps to the end of showcasing the admittedly solid vocal talents of the leading cast, the fact that some of the greatest tunes of the musical, namely “Mamma Mia” and “Dancing Queen,” were performed by a small ensemble was a real and regrettable shame. Whenever the cast and chorus at large were on stage as one, the energy in the room was tangible and electric. When they were absent, there was a real question of how there could be so little energy on stage with so many people waiting in the wings undoubtedly wishing they could join in.
The performance largely underused the cast and chorus for the big vocal performances. While the leading cast were impressive, songs like “Mamma Mia” and “Dancing Queen” are meant to be belted aloud and put the crowd under a spell. Instead, the energy in these teasingly low-tempo performances fell starkly flat.
The best part of Mamma Mia! was the end — and this isn’t meant in a snarky, holier-than-thou critical sense. The finale of the show is well-known: a full-ensemble performance of the biggest show tunes to, usually, a standing ovation, as was the case on March 9. The end felt like the very first time the energy level in the room was absolutely cranking, and songs like “Mamma Mia” and “Dancing Queen” had me mouthing the lyrics, whereas their performances during the core show had me somewhat distracted.
All in all, it would be a good wager that most, if not all, of the audience left Mamma Mia! having had fun. And beyond careful and persnickety critiques, if that isn’t a worthwhile goal of campus theatre, then what is?