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MAMMA MIA! (article first published : 2005-02-26)

Remember Abba - the bubble-gum pop group who got their start by winning the Eurovision Song Contest in 1974? Even in those days, that had to give you nil points in the street cred stakes.

But we all can (and, admit it, we do) sing along when we hear an Abba number. Remember Waterloo, Dancing Queen, Voulez-Vous, Chiquitita, The Winner Takes It All? Of course you do. The group were huge in the 70s and early 80s, and they have gone on to cult status, with a whole new generation of Abba fans - and a triple-decker cheese, turkey and corned beef sandwich named after the group in New York's Stage Deli. (Though corn, cheese and turkey can be seen in two ways.)

And Mamma Mia!, the world's top musical theatre success, with 14 productions on the go around the world at this moment, raking in over eight million dollars a week in ticket sales - is doing it by using Abba's music. Not bad for a group who won a competition that is the butt of snooty jokes.

Now South Africans can see why Mamma Mia! is bringing the Abba sound back. A touring production of the show, straight from Edinburgh and Dublin, opened in Johannesburg on Tuesday this week, will move to Cape Town on March 9 and then raise the roof at Durban's ICC from March 25 to 31. And if South Africa is like the other countries where touring productions of Mamma Mia! have gone, the show will pack 'em in.

This is no mere tribute to an old pop group. It is a slick, clever musical, telling a story and using Abba's music - and quite happy to send it and its cult status up at the same time. It's set in a simple Greek island taverna run by Donna who has lived there as a single mother since her rebellious days as a pop chick in the 1970s. She is now preparing for her daughter's wedding. She can't really understand Sophie's wish to marry, but she's going along with it and has asked her two closest friends and former members of Donna and the Dyanmos - Tanya and Rosie - along for the party.

But Sophie feels something is missing. She has identified three possible candidates who might be her Dad - they were all on the island 20 years ago and Donna slept with them all - so she asks them along, sure she will know immediately which is the one. And there you have the ingredients for a great story - three feisty fortysomething women, three interesting men and a pair of young lovers. It ends with a wedding, like all good comedy should, but how it gets there, whipped along by clever use of Abba music, is the story.

By making the main characters the fortysomethings, the show immediately appeals to all those who partied to Abba the first time around. They are the audience with disposable income for theatre tickets, and they are the ones who once hankered after a pair of silver platform boots.

To make Mamma Mia! viable in South Africa, it has come out of the regular theatres and into the convention centres where 2,500 people can see the show each night. Special raked seating has been imported from Germany, allowing space for the traditional Mamma Mia! dancing in the aisles at the finale. You may lose a bit of the intimacy of trad theatre, but you get one hell of a party vibe.

After the first night, the British cast were commenting on the politeness of South African audiences, who got up and clapped, but sat down again for the last encore. So KZN audiences should be on their mettle to show we can do what the rest of the world does. Take it from a converted sceptic - this show is worth all the razzmatazz and hype - it's a winner.

Mamma Mia! runs at the ICC in Durban from March 25 to 31 at 20h00Tuesday to Thursday; (Friday and Saturday at 17h30 and 21h00 and Sunday 15h00 and 18h30). Tickets range from R130 to R280 on weekdays and from R155 to R305 at weekends. Book at Computicket at www.computicket.com or 083 915 8000. Margaret von Klemperer




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