As an excuse to string 21 Abba hits together and place them on a stage, Mamma Mia works. As a model concept to produce a successful musical, the idea brings a whole new meaning to the word stage hit. It's like visiting a 60s production of South Pacific: we know every single song, they're ingrained in our blood. And like Rodgers & Hammerstein's masterpiece, we know every song because every song is well crafted and truly memorable. There might have been other musicals produced in the last 15 years that have one or two memorable songs, but you won't find 21 of them packed into one show. On the merits of its music alone, this show, which is currently running at London's Prince Edward Theatre, is a worthy entertainment.
Thus in the first instance Mamma Mia is guaranteed some level of success. But there is another reason why now, when the show is only eight weeks old, tickets for July 2000 are about to go on sale. Despite its impeccable pedigree, there's not a whiff of flabby self importance. The premise of taking a basic storyline--in this instance, the tale of a young girl about to marry and wanting to know which of three possible candidates is her father--and then melding that into the lyrical stream of Abba pop hits has been achieved with a genuine lightness of touch.
The setting is a Greek island. Mother is a 60s hippie who visited for sea and sun, then never left. Stereotypically, she opened a taverna to provide income for herself and her illegitimate child. The production design by Mark Thompson is redolent of Les Miz, in that the set comprises two main trucks that whirland wheel around the stage, producing a variety of interior and exterior scenes, principally white stucco walls with enough doorways to satisfy the most complex Restoration farce. Howard Harrison's lighting is a brash caricature; deep Mediterranean sea-blues and rich sunburnt oranges leave us no doubt where we are. It's an interesting marriage of pop concert hues and theatrical sensibilities, provided by a battery of ETC Source Fours and a smattering of Vari*Lites (mainly VL5(TM)s and the odd lonely VL7(TM)). The sound is similarly robust, in that levels are higher than we might expect at a normal stage musical, but not so loud as to be offensive.
The PA system is perhaps the most interesting aspect of this show, Mamma Mia being V-Dosc's first venture into a West End theatre. Well known in rock and roll, the L'Acoustic V-Dosc system does not at first examination lend itself to the confines of a proscenium theatre. Well known for its distinct delivery, coverage, and clarity, it is at once a great system, but because of how it's designed to perform, also a demanding taskmaster. For specialist audio designer Autograph Recordings Ltd., this novel system presented some new challenges. Chris Full, production sound engineer for the show, described the approach: "It was actually V-Dosc that suggested we split the system in two groups on either side of the stage." He's referring to the break from a more conventional single continuous hang of V-Dosc cabinets as single linear is fundamental to the way the system is designed to work. "When Andrew and Bobby [Bruce and Aitken respectively, both Autograph audio designers] first looked at how to do this, they wanted a split system for the coverage the theatre needed. The required horizontal coverage of the cabinets in terms of the auditorium, and the physical restrictions of the proscenium walls, resulted in the axes of each hang being greater than 80 degrees," Full continues. "One of the other distinct characteristics of the V-Dosc linear source is its ability to deliver consistent level over such a wide spread; thus problems of reflection were minimized."
Despite the V-Dosc system's ability to deliver over a wide area and a long distance, the sheer "clutter" of a conventional proscenium theatre dictated that more conventional solutions be found to provide correct audio information to less accessible areas. "Yes, we did have to put a cluster of four L'Acoustic Arcs above the center of the proscenium," explains Full. "They helped cover the circle and balcony. There were also some d&b E3 speakers under the balcony for delay and fill. Different designers like different loudspeaker manufacturers for different styles of job, but in this case, the d&b E3 fit the criteria."
Autograph also chose to stretch its experience on the control side, using Outboard Electronics TiMax software control to run surround sound for two special effects sequences, and SAM software run with the Cadac J-Type desk. "The SAM software is not just a VCA control system," Full says. "We use it on this show to control new routing programmable modules." (This is a first for Cadac and Autograph.) "It is also able to control the outboard equipment, an added bonus for us compared to the Autograph VCA software we've been using for many years," Full adds. Despite trying two new products straight out of the box (Autograph had prior success trying out TiMax at the Royal Albert Hall for a production of Tosca), the company reported few problems using the new technology. "Looking back, we had very little downtime, considering. When we did have problems the manufacturers came up trumps, especially the backup we got from Cadac with the new SAM software."
So, Mamma Mia may be a well-presented show with good music. But that alone is never enough. Whatever the strengths of the music it's the story that counts. Mamma Mia succeeds in the final analysis because it has a credible thread. It may be blatant commercial exploitation of the pop canon, but so what?