By Ben Wheeler
Take one Swedish pop band – the finest you can find – add a hint of the Italian language, a Greek setting, a universal tale of love lost, and a quest for identity. Bring to the boil with an Irish Australian director and sprinkle liberally with Fijian talent – you can find this growing everywhere.
Mamma Mia! – the newest offshoot of the post-Covid arts explosion in Fiji –certainly has a multicultural flavour, and last night’s opening was truly a sight (and sound) to behold.
The vision may be European, but the execution is pure Fijian, replete with mentions of O’Reilly’s and “oilei”s delivered knowingly at the audience.
The sold-out Suva Civic Centre was abuzz with expectation and over the course of two and a half hours the cast and crew took those in attendance on a wild ride, delivering a show that will not be forgotten.
The Mamma Mia! story is no doubt familiar. Mother and daughter Donna and Sophie have been running a small taverna on the fictional island of Kalokairi, blissfully free of paternal concerns and influence, until Sophie’s wedding day. In a quest to find out who her father is, 20-year-old Sophie reads her mother’s diary entries from the disco days of 1979 to discover that in the throes of heartache and rejection, Donna in fact spent the night with three suitors over the course of the hot summer of her conception.
She secretly invites the three men, Sam, Bill and Harry to the island and her wedding to discover the truth.
This much is elaborated through the prologue and opening number “Honey Honey”. From here it is a jackpot jukebox bonanza of ABBA songs, laughter, excitement, suspense and tears that needs to be seen (and heard) to be believed.
There is something quite astonishing about the assembled cast. One of the most striking finds is Lia Daunakamakama as Sophie. In her stage debut, Miss Daunakamkama has the confidence of a seasoned professional, her voice powerful yet full of warmth and heartache, with a range that will have you cheering, crying and most importantly, rooting for her to find happiness. Together with Paulini Bautani as Donna, whose extraordinary pipes are familiar from the Pasifika Voices Choir. Like Daunakamkama, she has no previous theatrical experience, but they form the emotional core of the story and display a commanding grasp of both the comedy and drama their roles require.
Surrounding these two are a phalanx of talented performers: Justin Hickes, Henry Steele and Alby Eastgate are the potential pater familias and each brought their A game, owning the roles of Sam, Harry and Bill, equally impressive in their musical prowess and ability to draw emotions and wry smiles from the audience. Without wishing to downplay the extraordinary performances of Messrs Hickes and Steele, it was Mr Eastgate who provided the biggest surprise of the night, navigating his role with an easy-going casual confidence that made for a profoundly polished performance.
The Gang frontman Soni Uluitoga also surprised with a memorable performance as Sophie’s love interest Sky; a difficult role, somewhat marginalised, but brought centre stage through his star power and delivery.
But, we must now turn our attention to the divas – the Dynamos beside Donna – for they were both show-stealers! Sofaia Tukana astounded with her vocal dexterity and physical comedy as the carefree Rosie, balanced perfectly by the Queen of Vude herself, Laisa Vulakoro who, also in her first Broadway role, created a palpable state of frenzy in the audience with the merest glance, high-kick or Fijian aside.
It feels almost criminal not to name each cast and ensemble member for their performances, but what was most striking was the collective effort and harmonious vibes. Everyone seemed to be having the time of their life, a stark contrast to the nervous pacing I have been assured was to be witnessed behind the scenes.
That is a true mark of professionalism and collaboration: these performers, each with varied levels of experience, coming together to support each other across the production. And it is a mark of how much fun truly was being had – fun that resonated from the stage and quickly infected the packed auditorium who could not wait to get on their feet for the finale.
This infectious fun was, it must be noted, engineered by far more than the stellar turns on stage. The choreography was a sheer and exuberant joy to behold (and apparently to perform!) and had Tevita Tobeyaweni’s fingerprints all over it. It is truly a mark of this young man’s talent that he has, in a matter of years, created a signature style – a fusion of hip hop and more traditional Fijian forms – that is instantly recognisable to audiences.
The central unifying force, of course, is the music of ABBA and the supergroup orchestra that played the score live fully deserve acknowledgement for an astonishing achievement. Accomplished musicians all, it is still quite something to learn, read and play live a score such as this, but under the watchful eye and consummate supervision of music director Ben Morrison, the melodies soared, underpinning the action on stage, and at times (such as the multi-layered harmonies on Super Trouper) felt transcendental.
One last, huge shout out must go to those technical and support staff and crew for their work on and off stage, so excellent because it was so invisible.
There were some kinks, but such is the nature of musical theatre and, it must be remembered, a production that is operating on something of a shoestring, pulling in money from donors and sponsors, but largely dependent on the generosity of spirit of the community.
At the helm, Mamma Mia! co-producers and director Sharleen Ali and Michael Payer deserve their own commendations. Ms Ali – who has had verse and chapter written of the accomplishments of The Festivals Company she founded and leads – once again finds herself at the vanguard of the local contemporary arts scene.
Mr Payer, like many others involved in the production, took a huge leap of faith to bring his love and experience of watching and performing in musical theatre in Australia to Fiji, where he has lived and worked for several years now. As a first-time director, taking time out from a full-time job, he should be commended for both his commitment, intentions and achievements of this bold undertaking that eventually had all the hallmarks of the theatre I have seen performed in London or New York, but with a Fijian twist that for me elevated the material even further.
Like the construction of the sails of the traditional Fijian drua, where every villager contributes a thread that would weave through the finished product allowing for exploration of new territories, we see that many, many hands and hearts working in unison allowed this production to come into being.
The stunning post-intermission dream sequence is a case in point. Mr Payer had a distinct idea in mind for this, featuring his favourite song, the little known “Under Attack”, and each and every member of the creative team came together to realise this vision. It is one of many standout moments in this incredible production.
The biggest collaboration, though, can be found in the huge swathes of locals who turned out to support Mamma Mia! and be a part of the first night of what could be considered a piece of modern Fijian history, designed to inform, inspire, educate and entertain audiences. From the highest levels of politics and commerce, to the kids who have always dreamed of a career in the creative sector right here in Fiji, that this dream is becoming more of a reality every day.
Don’t miss the chance to be a part of Mamma Mia! in Suva, with performances as follows:
Saturday 10th February at 2pm and 730pm,
Sunday 11th February at 3pm,
Friday 16th February at 730pm,
Saturday 17th February at 2pm and 730pm.