BWW Feature: MAMMA MIA! at Saint-Denis Theatre
For Broadway buffs, jukebox musicals can be very polarizing. On the one hand, these musicals offer pop and rock artists a new platform for their music and bring audience members to the theatre. On the other hand, taking an array of established songs and weaving a plot around them doesn't always work. Mamma Mia!, seems to be the queen of the jukebox musicals, with British playwright Catherine Johnson successfully telling the comedic story of Sophie searching for her birth father in the days before her wedding. The plot unfolds on a Greek island as Sophie's empowered yet frazzled mother, Donna, receives three unexpected wedding guests: Sam, Harry, and Bill. These distinctly different gents are Donna's beaus from her free love days, each of whom is a possible match as Sophie's dad. Add in some hilarious sidekicks and a rip-roaring musical score of ABBA hits (Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus) and you have a fun feel-good hit!
Talk about a crowd-pleaser, in the last year alone several incarnations of Mamma Mia! have come to the forefront for Montreal audiences, including Nuvo Theatre's inaugural production, Cote Saint-Luc Dramatic Society's Senior Summerworks' parody Gramma Mia!, and of course the cinematic release of Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again. Is it any wonder that Montreal's Just Pour Rire (JPR) is capitalizing on this show's popularity? Before the curtain rose on this Franglais production, with French script and English songs, JPR claimed to have pre-sold a whopping 40,000 tickets.
Culturally, Montreal's theatre scene is typically divided by linguistic lines; French artists perform French shows, English artists perform English shows, and audiences often follow suit. Two exceptions to this pattern come to mind: The 1991 Montreal production of Les Miserables, and the 2008 production of Altar Boyz (Les Z'Enfants de Choeur), both of which featured brilliantly talented cast members who performed these musicals in both French and English on alternating nights.
One such talented performer (in both official languages) is Frayne McCarthy, made his name locally as Les Miz's Marius, then went on to appear in Mirvish's Mamma Mia!, having now returned home to Theatre Saint-Denis to perform the lead role of Harry in the JPR production. A rare performer whose lengthy career has straddled both linguistic theatre communities, Frayne pointed out other anglo cast members who managed to break into this JPR production: Sharon James (playing Rosie) and chorus member Mike Melino. Frayne went on to explain what makes this edition of Mamma Mia! different from its cookie-cutter predecessors: "Our director, Serge Postigo, has very carefully cast this production with actors who bring the right essence to every character and makes every scene fresh. Amazingly, characters that were hardly noticeable in other productions now shine and have story arcs and real dimension. So many interpersonal aspects of the story have been tailored specifically to the talents of the company you will be seeing at the Saint Denis Theatre. And because of that, this show feels so completely new."
Explaining some other creative differences of this new production, McCarthy comments "Technology has changed somewhat since the original Mamma Mia! came to North America from London. While the inaugural set for the show is iconic, Just Pour Rire's production boasts a gorgeous revitalized design, thanks to the use of animated projections on a massive million-dollar high-definition LED screen. It creates an endless Greek Island vista that's constantly changing. Add to that the more traditional elements of stagecraft, the set pieces that are on tracks and flown in, the intricately detailed costumes, hair, and makeup... every aspect of this show has been so carefully considered and rendered for our audiences to be completely transported!"
When asked why English Montrealers should flock to this production, McCarthy responded, "Because, it's pure joy! You've seen the movie, so you know the story already and the vocal performances are so compelling and the acting so clear that even if you have no idea of the story to begin with, you'll absolutely get it!"
I may have to wait several years for my dream of Just for Laughs and Juste Pour Rire presenting our "Bonjour-Hi" city with fully bilingual casts performing Broadway musicals in both languages. In the meantime, this Chiquitita will be a Super Trouper and Take a Chance on this show that's gotten rave reviews. Oh, and JPR-Thank You for the Music.
Mamma Mia! La Comedie Musicale (with French dialogue and English lyrics) continues at Saint-Denis Theatre (1594 rue St-Denis) from now until July 27th before touring to Quebec City. Tickets are $80 and up, with group rates available. For tickets and info: https://www.hahaha.com/fr/show/mamma-mia
UPDATE (July 22, 2019): Please note that this show has changed format and now both the script and the songs are now done in French. A jaw-dropping flawless production with phenomenal onstage talent, inspired original direction, and fresh precise choreography, let alone the incredible set--this show is a must see before it leaves for Quebec City!