Celebrations dinner theatre in Winnipeg celebrates the music of ABBA… and Anita Ward
Celebrations is now in its 25th year of providing original musical theatre productions to Western Canadians. The experience has become an annual tradition in the Conner family.
On my most recent summer visit to my hometown, I saw that Celebrations was calling its latest Mamma Mio Here We Go Again! It’s a testament to my gullibility that, at first, I read it as Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again, and thought, wow, it didn’t take them long to get a version of that new movie onto the stage.
But then I realized: no, this is Celebrations. This is going to be an original production, with all that entails. Including changing one letter and some punctuation in an effort to stay one step ahead of copyright lawyers.
Somewhere between The Big Boom Theory and Orange is the New Pink
So how bad was it?
With Celebrations, it’s all about degree. Some at our table maintained that it wasn’t as bad as last season’s directionless, awkwardly tame and nonsensical Orange is the New Pink.
Perhaps. But I submitted that Mamma Mio Here We Go Again! couldn’t touch 2016’s The Big Boom Theory. This pains me to say, as there is no love lost between myself and the geek sitcom source material. But at least Big Boom had a story that made some kind of sense (as much as possible between servings of pork ball soup and breaded Manitoba whitefish) and jokes that worked. I put this down to the fact that Celebrations actually sprung for some outside talent, a Winnipeg comedian, to help with the script.
Not so Orange is the New Pink. And not so Mamma Mio Here We Go Again!
The story kind-of sort-of riffs off the basic premise of Mamma Mia! The Musical! and its sequel, currently in theatres. However, instead of a matriarch (Meryl Streep) whose daughter is getting married, a dad is the main character. (A favourite motif of Celebrations productions is gender-flipping.) You don’t need to know the story of Mamma Mia! The Musical!, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again!, or even Celebrations’ own Mamma Mio! (a previous production) to glean the story. Basically, we encounter Norman, a suburban husband and dad, as he reminisces about the time he was traveling Greece as a teen. The instigating incident for this reminiscence? One of his sons discovers his diary.
And if you don’t think the writers (two of them, including the superbly named artistic director Randy Apostle) are going to try to milk laughs from Norman insisting it’s a “journal” and not a “diary,” then you’ve never been to Celebrations.
A Winnipeg dinner theatre version of the Greek Islands
Most of the stage-time takes place in flashback. (The set is divided into three; there is some action on the side-stages but most everything happens on the mainstage. This includes the between-act “celebrations,” such as when cast members invite audience members who are celebrating a birthday or anniversary onto the stage. This is practically everyone.)
After Norman explains to us that he wasn’t always the together, confident suburban dad we see before us, we are transported to the late seventies (I think) Greece (I think). Teenage Norman (the same actor as suburban dad Norman) wears a long black wig and speaks exactly like the generic teen character from The Simpsons. He and his friends meet some girls, and Norman overcomes his fear of dancing in public. And, outside of some minor subplots among some supporting characters, that’s about it.
So: the story is made of sticks, the most memorable thing about any of the characters is a voice from The Simpsons, and the jokes are beyond dad humour bad. How are the music and performances?
When an ABBA musical becomes a BeeGees musical
Let me start by saying that I am an avowed ABBA fan.
So when I saw that Celebrations was doing ABBA, I thought: how bad could it be? It was ABBA, after all, and so ideal for the kind of musical theatre grads who make up the casts of these shows.
Well, the performances of the ABBA songs are actually pretty good in that they’re not too painful. (Although I do disagree with the decision to shorten several of the numbers). However, unlike Mamma Mia or its sequel, the songs are not all ABBA.
Let me repeat that for effect: a musical spoof of the sequel to one of the most successful musicals of all time, and is wall-to-wall ABBA—whose whole reason for being is ABBA—doesn’t just have ABBA songs.
Now, if you read the fine print (which I didn’t) on its website, Celebrations points out that the show is “a celebration of the wonderful music of ABBA, and other classic bands of the era” (italics mine). So caveat emptor, I suppose. But when this translates to the inclusion of randomly chosen disco hits like “Ring My Bell” (simply because one character rings a doorbell, I might add), the whole idea of musical theatre is set back hundreds of years.
It gets worse. The show features not just one but two BeeGees songs. Nothing against the BeeGees, but I think we have a right to expect that a show that supposedly spoofs a jukebox musical that features the music of ABBA should have lots of ABBA, not lots of BeeGees. There’s even a slice of character interaction where people are onstage arguing about who gets to be “Barry” (that is, Barry Gibb) in a band they’re going to form. You would think, if the production is going to be self-aware enough to crack jokes about an actual band, then that band would be—yes—ABBA.
But wait. Maybe Celebrations is subversive musical theatre?
So should I go?
Absolutely. We had a blast. Twelve thumbs up! But don’t order the fish.
Mamma Mio Here We Go Again! is on until Oct. 6! For tickets, showtimes, and more info about Celebrations, visit celebrations.ca.