Overseas productions of Mamma Mia! have graced our shores before, but New Zealand is the first country given the rights to stage its own version. Dionne Christian reports

Grant Meese, operations and artistic manager for Auckland-based Amici Productions, completed his first New York Marathon seven minutes over his hoped-for time of four hours but he didn't have time to be disappointed.

He barely caught his breath before another appointment that would determine the future of the biggest theatre project he has been involved with, one that could have significant spin-offs for the entire country.

Meese was about to find out whether New Zealand would become the first place in the world to gain permission to freshen and stage a new version of popular musical Mamma Mia!.

Often dubbed "the Abba musical", Mamma Mia producers Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus (of Abba) and Judy Craymer wanted to release the rights to stage it to a wider range of theatre companies, including community outfits. But first they wanted to trial it with a group that had a track record of touring mega-musicals to smaller venues by using skilled local talent - performers, musicians, technical crews - alongside international experts.


Amici Productions has been doing so since 2002, working with a consortium of 10 New Zealand musical theatre societies the length and breadth of both islands, to stage and tour shows such as Phantom of the Opera, Cats, 42nd Street, Anything Goes, Miss Saigon and Rent. Early last year, it was approached to take on Mamma Mia! and give it a new look with fresh costumes and updated designs.

During his stateside trip, Meese got the news he wanted - designs for a new-look Mamma Mia! had been given the thumbs up.

"It's a huge coup and a real vote of confidence in what we do," says Meese, who directs the show's Auckland season.

Costumer Lesley Burkes-Harding and set designer John Harding, who teamed up for last year's Auckland Theatre Company hit Chicago, were given the task of giving the show a new look.

Two of New Zealand's most experienced designers, they were immersed in the world of the Mercury Theatre for the early part of their careers before working as senior designers on theatre, television and films such as Home By Christmas, Out of the Blue, Avatar, The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit.

They wanted to create "the Aegean in Auckland" to reflect Mamma Mia!'s setting on a sun-baked Greek island surrounded by azure sea. Harding says he was surprised the original stage show was quite minimalist compared to the film starring Meryl Streep and Colin Firth, which revelled in its holiday island setting.

"I thought if we were to work on Mamma Mia! it would be about re-creating the original stitch by stitch, line by line, but we were given carte blanche to do something new so things evolved very quickly," he says.

"Probably my biggest challenge has been creating a design which can travel and work effectively in 10 or 11 different theatres from ones like the Civic, with a high proscenium arch and 16m-wide stage, to smaller spaces where the stage is only 9m wide."

Harding says he has built upwards, creating a street of pension apartments with terracotta roofs and window shutters that open and close. He has also designed a jetty that can sit over an orchestra pit to give the illusion characters have been at the beach.

Both he and Burkes-Harding say they wanted the musical to have a strong sense of place because the more that atmosphere can be created, the more audiences will be drawn in.

Originally from England, Burkes-Harding gives a wry smile as she confesses she never made it to Greece which, given this latest assignment, could have been quite useful.

The costumes probably have more sparkles than ever before, she says.

"You have to be quite brave with costumes like these; it's got to be all or nothing and, while people will remember the style of clothes worn by Abba in the 1970s and 80s, they're maybe not as flash we thought. There's a lot of white satin."

In Auckland Mamma Mia! stars Delia Hannah, Jackie Clarke and Minouk van der Velde, and the three male leads are Richard Neame, Stephen O'Reilly and John Hellyer. After its Auckland season, the show moves to Dunedin, Invercargill and Napier, eventually winding up in Christchurch in April 2016.

What: Mamma Mia!

Where and when: Civic Theatre, March 4-23