Mamma Mia sheds new light on power of ABBA classics
Just when you think you know ABBA songs a bit like their famous logo - back to front and front to back - Rockhampton's first production of Mamma Mia comes along and forces you to experience your childhood faves in a whole new light.
Granted, that light is buttery and warm, as it spills over the Greek isles where all the beautiful young people have arrived for Sophie and Sky's nuptials against a sun-drenched backdrop.
Squint a little and it's a better than good weekend on Great Keppel Island.
But just below the surface, as the guests splash their way through a boozy pre-wedding bash, there's a real sense of pathos in play, as Donna comes face-to-face with her shadier past.
The staunchly independent Donna (Amanda Hock) reels in shock when her first and real love - the one that got away, and one of Sophie's maybe-Dads - rocks up to the taverna which they dreamed up together but she, alone, stayed to build.
The taverna set is a masterpiece of stage planning.
It provides the cast with two storeys of windows, doorways and staircases through which they, as Greek villagers or wedding guests, endlessly criss-cross in the days leading up to the wedding.
These are the doors which get thrown back to reveal Donna and the Dynamos - and, later, the three male leads - in all their spangly, jumpsuited glory.
These are the same doors which people who love each other (but not right now) slam shut on the ones who love them most.
It's a real credit to the set designer and backstage crew that we move from the wide open beach, where everyone gets a bit frisky, then back to the taverna, with such ease.
The tension between Donna and Sam (Grant Wolf Whitfield) is palpable from the outset; it literally brings Donna to her knees in Chiquitita; it floors them both in SOS; and Wolf Whitfield's cry from the heart, in Knowing Me Knowing You, had the preview audience in tears on Thursday night.
Theirs is a long-simmering, who's-to-blame blue that's been simmering in both their hearts from all the way around the world for 21 years so, by the time Sophie brings them back together, their wounds are on show for the whole audience.
And by that final, anguished, rasping note at the end of The Winner Takes It All, we desperately want to see them healed.
Forget what you think you know about Mamma Mia from the movie.
Hollywood producers have a heinous habit of sacrificing skill for the pull of so-called celebrity (Think Crowe in Les Mis, Wilson in CATS and Brosnan in Mamma Mia) .
These leads can sing, and I mean REALLY sing.
Director Joy Philippi has cleverly granted her Donna and Sam, in particular, the dignity to stand and deliver, straight out to the audience, from the heart.
That's the trick that scratches away at decades of what we think about ABBA songs - the childhood nostalgia, the mediocre karaoke attempts - and reveals the sheer angst that was always there, stuffed inside the sequinned pantsuits.
Diehard fans will remember how heartbreaking is was for the band's members to negotiate working together toward their final albums post-divorce, and how startlingly bleak was their final album The Visitors compared to the halcyon days of Waterloo.
Don't despair, though… this isn't, in the end run, a Greek tragedy.
No melting wax wings or falling turtles cracking heads here.
I guarantee you'll be beaming long after you leave the Pilbeam Theatre carpark.
It's a testament to this production's powerful leads - Donna and the Dynamos, the three would-be Dads and the young lovers - that they take the audience on a roller-coaster ride from tears and tribulation to hope and hilarity.
As the bestest best friends forever, Tanya (Aleah Dillon) and Rosie (Lisa Kibblewhite) take a confident turn each bringing the men to their knees.
Their larger-than-life comic turn are the perfect foil to the sweetness of new arrivals Harry (Peter Bothams) and Bill (Jason Plumb).
In the role of Sophie, Maddison McDonald bursts onto the stage in a blaze of sunshine and soaring high notes.
She and her Sky (Jacob Goves) had the audience members jumping out of their seats shortly into the first act with Lay All Your Love On Me.
Then the boys, fronted by Pepper (Daniel Hair) had us in hysterics.
The band, directed by Jeanette Douglas, went into overdrive about this point, as they lead into the prenuptial celebrations at a frenetic pace.
Much of the magic in this show comes from the shift between guitar-driven disco upbeats to the slower, more intimate ballads.
The band simply never missed a beat.
And the glue that holds all this energy and emotion together is the ensemble or, pun intended, "the Greek chorus".
In the ancient Greek plays, the chorus acts to commentate what's going on stage, as a collective voice.
The real genius of this production of Mamma Mia is the way the chorus maintains its presence, even when we're barely aware of them.
When they're on stage, you can't miss them, thanks to Lita Hegvold's excellent choreography.
The cast seems to be having a heck of a lot of fun throughout the show, and it will be all the audience can do not to climb on up there with them.
The look of the show is, for the best part, barefoot beach chic, which gives way to slick 70s glam when the dedicated costuming department breaks out the sequins.
There's also a truly frightening and stylish sequence after the intermission curtain comes up you'll be talking about for days, which must have had the sewing machines in meltdown.
But even when they're not in front of you, the chorus is still with you in this tour de force show which truly is a credit to the talent of Rockhampton and the hard work of so many volunteers to get it to stage.
Having nearly sold out the first seven shows released, with the newest - the Saturday matinee - selling fast, it seems something like a 10th of Rockhampton's entire population is going to see this show.
Those are some impressive stats.
We're so used to hearing ABBA songs sung by four voices or, down the pub, just one. But in this show, even when the leads are onstage, apparently alone, belting their hearts out for just us, the chorus is still with us.
With so many beautiful voices, and an especially strong male chorus in play, vocal director Jacinta Delalande has woven a wall of sound which will have you paying real attention to the songs of ABBA for the first time in a long while, if not forever.
The way the chorus provides harmonies between and around these exceptionally strong lead performances, the way their voices lift and carry even the scenes when they're not drawing attention to themselves in the daily life of the taverna is, for my money, an inspiration.
Break a leg, everyone.