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Confession time: Prior to arriving in Israel, my only exposure to ABBA had been through the blockbuster Australian films Muriel's Wedding and Priscilla Queen of the Desert. Assuming the band was Australian, I was surprised to see a CD in my Israeli future husband's very small "foreign" music collection. Looking at me in complete shock he said, reverentially, "But this is ABBA! They're from Sweden! They won the Eurovision in 1974 for 'Waterloo.'" (Though I didn't know then what Eurovision was and didn't want to show even greater ignorance by asking, I was later glad to have the peppy music when cleaning the house.)
After attending Tuesday night's gala performance of MAMMA MIA!, all those associations have been swept away.
Upon arriving at Tel Aviv's Nokia Stadium we were already in a good mood: for once, a convenient location and smartly designed parking lot. Having made it in record time we enjoyed gawking at the who's who milling nonchalantly at the VIP reception. Fittingly, we spotted Zvika Pick (a.k.a. "The Maestro," currently seen on Kochav Nolad), whose own massive repertoire was used to stage a similar show, Marilu. And as befits the king of kitsch (not at all a put-down), he was seated in the front row alongside his current queen and two celebrity daughters.
MAMMA MIA!, which hit the London stage in 1999, is essentially a vehicle for ABBA hits, and although incredibly entertaining, it requires more than the usual dose of suspension of disbelief to make the thin plot credible. But if you are a fan (or even just indifferent to ABBA), it is well worth the extra effort. Especially if, like most present at this performance, you really like to belt out the songs (words are encouragingly projected at both sides of the stage).
The show begins with a lengthy Prelude, happily played live with the show's travelling band. (Unhappily, the band is mostly synthesizers.) The curtain rises and young Sophie Sheridan (played convincingly and energetically by the golden-voiced Katie Brayben) sends wedding invitations to three mystery men. Unbeknown to her mother Donna, Sophie has filched Donna's diary from 21 years ago and discovered that instead of being the product of a sperm donor, as she was led to believe, she has three potential fathers.
It is the eve of Sophie's wedding and the three "fathers" arrive to the Greek island taverna Donna has made home. (I'll leave it for you to discover how the plot unfolds.)
Donna, played by Carolanne Weidle, is the hands-down star of the show. Whether it is acting, singing, dancing or fuming (which she does really well), Weidle has them all mastered. She is a pleasure to behold and utterly natural on stage.
The trio of past lovers are a mixed bunch. Cameron Blakely as Sam Carmichael is definitely the best singer of the lot, and has a surprisingly angelic tone for such a stiff, uptight character. Jefferey Harmer, as the intrepid adventurer Bill Austin, is jolly and in his few solo lines sings admirably. The disappointment was Tim English (as banker Harry Bright), whose singing is mediocre at best, off-key at worst.
A reoccuring gag features Donna and the Dynamos, the friends' band from back when they all looked good in their costumes. Donna's two best friends are the unconventional Rosie and vampy Tanya (think a more sober Patsy from Absolutely Fabulous). In their numbers we are treated to potentially show-stopping renditions of classic hits, including "Chiquitita" and "Dancing Queen." The former works beautifully, but the latter fell terribly flat as the three women struggled to reach the low-notes in the unsuitable key. Morag Siller as Rosie puts on a good show, but Joan Walker's Tanya is heavy on the vavavoom and light on the vocals. But she certainly shows off her great legs!
Craig Adams as the young male lead, Sky, is suitably wide-eyed and silky-voiced, though his part is given such illogical turns that it must be difficult to play him to any depth.
The lighting, sound (a little too loud) and set are definitely up to par, but the costuming is especially well done and changed with amazing speed.
The portion of the Nokia Stadium set aside for the production sits 3,000. We enjoyed our seats in the orchestra section, but I would recommend buying the "cheap" seats in the stands where the audience sees better and can more easily follow the Hebrew translation and bilingual song lyrics.
Over 63,000 tickets have been sold, but there are some 10,000 left. Boogie, don't walk to buy them. You won't be disappointed. And I say gimme, gimme, gimme more high-caliber British productions.
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