Mamma Mia, delivering the fabulous music of ABBA, will open at the Civic Theatre in August. Each week we go backstage with Invercargill Musical Theatre to gain a rare insight into what it takes to produce a show of this calibre
Stephen Robertson has directed no fewer than eight productions for Invercargill Musical Theatre and he will be at the helm again for Mamma Mia.
I have been fortunate to work with many professional and amateur directors.
Every one is different. They all have areas they excel in and, invariably, some they don't. Keep an open mind and you can learn from them all.
Stephen Robertson is the most complete director I have worked with.
He's the one I've learned most of my theatre craft from and who has been the greatest influence over my work in theatre. In most of his productions, Stephen will not only direct but also design and teach the choreography, design the set and scenery, sort out the props, design the wardrobe and work intensely on lighting design.
He directs with immense detail. Of the 12 key elements of theatre - acting, singing, dance/movement, orchestra, sound, lighting, AV/ technical, costumes, scenery/set, props, hair and makeup - his knowledge of each and ability to stitch them precisely together is undeniable.
The challenge of any director is to get all of these elements to complement each other on stage and to create a show that the audience will believe. Sounds simple? I can assure you, it's not.
Have you ever watched a show and had a feeling that something's not quite right? You can't put your finger on it but something just isn't working for you. This is the result of one or more of the elements being in conflict or clashing, and in theatre it happens a lot.
Invercargill's production will be the first time that Stephen has directed Mamma Mia and, of the 10 musical theatre company consortium partners throughout New Zealand, Stephen will direct this show on behalf of three of them.
He has seen the stage show of Mamma Mia numerous times, yet will not copy any of what he has seen. This production will be his and he will create his version of Mamma Mia here in Invercargill. He is creatively restricted in some areas, as the scenery/set and wardrobe have already been designed and made, but his focus will move to areas where he can make a mark, to the style of the show, choreography and visual aspects, such as lighting.
He was in "mid-research mode" when he arrived in Invercargill for auditions. He had a reasonably clear idea of the style he wanted to present in the show and was searching the talent of Invercargill to bring that vision to life.
Ideally, he was looking for what he called a triple threat: A person who is strong in singing, dancing and acting.
"It would be nice to cast the whole show with triple threats but unfortunately there aren't that many in New Zealand," he says.
"So then the priority becomes, they must be able to sing. This is a musical and the first priority is ability to sing. Others may disagree with this but to me it is absolutely critical. I've just been to a professional show in Australia where the leads couldn't sing in tune. It did my head in.
"Next is how they look, their physicality.
"This show has some pretty clear and defined roles so the way they look is very important to make the characters believable. Third, ability to act - not so critical in this show as the scenes are quite short. However, we will sort any shortfalls they have with this.
"We had a good turnout for auditions and we are extremely fortunate here in Invercargill as we always seem to end up with the right people. I know other centres are importing leads and paying them professionally, but we have cast the whole show locally.
"We do have people in this cast that have worked professionally, like David [McMeeking], Michelle [Lange] and Jacquie [Carswell]. They have all been away for a while and now living back in Invercargill, which is good for us.
"The cast will determine a lot of where we go with the show. It's my job now to work within each person's talent, bring their personalities through and make them shine.
"I have to be careful not to try and do stuff they can't do or are uncomfortable doing.
"It's quite a slow process of 'shaping' their characters. I'll go to rehearsal and I'll just throw a concept or idea at them and see how they handle it, then it's just thinking on my feet about how to adapt it and make it work. This is where it will never be a copy of anything else because we are working with different talents.
"Most of the ensemble is made up of dancers. That was not so easy to cast as this is a pretty full- on dancing show.
"However we got there, all local."
He has selected his cast. There are 40 of them - 26 will be onstage and 14 backstage with the orchestra, adding depth and strength to the onstage ensemble as backing vocalists.
It is an extremely good cast. The rehearsals are intense, the movement crisp and precise, the singing full and gutsy. I'm standing at rehearsal, at times shaking my head in disbelief; this is going to be so good.
At the time of writing, the cast are nine weeks out from opening. I cannot recall seeing a cast performing so tight this far out.
Let me be first to say it: This cast is stunning.
David McMeeking, in his 30 odd years' experience in musical theatre, has played some of the biggest roles there are for a male performer, including Jean Valjean in Les Miserables and, his most recent, two years as understudy to Rob Guest in Phantom of the Opera in Sydney.
Julie Smith, another 30-year veteran, has taken lead roles for IMT in the past but also directs, writes shows and is an accomplished musical director. Her harmonies are second to none.
Nathan Hughes, a pure tenor, has started to rack up some very consistent performances for IMT and always finds himself in standout roles - the high priest in Jesus Christ Superstar proving a point.
Alice McKinlay bolted into the limelight as Marty in Grease last year. She worked exceptionally hard with Stephen last year and musical director Richard Marrett. Her casting in Mamma Mia is just reward.
Jacqueline Carswell dominated the leading ladies of IMT a few years back in My Fair Lady, Cabaret and Oliver. Jacquie is professionally trained in musical theatre and is a very accomplished and experienced performer.
I still remember Steve Broad on NZ Idol. It has been incredibly interesting watching Steve grow in musical theatre over the past few years, in particular with the lead role in Grease last year. That role pushed Steve's boundaries in so many directions and stretched him as a performer.
Ewan Rodway, new to IMT in last year's theatre restaurant Back to the 80s, has very quickly became a crowd favourite and certainly found favour with Stephen. Moving up the ranks at pace, I expect we will be seeing a lot more of him in the future.
Michelle Lange (nee Daley) is such an accomplished performer and has covered many of the leading lady roles in musical theatre, both in Invercargill and Wellington.
She has worked extensively with Stephen in the past and, of course, is our reigning Southland Entertainer of the Year.
At rehearsal last week the girls were given the instruction to buy themselves some nude G-strings. Next week you might find out why when we dive into the "drawers" of wardrobe.
- The Southland Times