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July 15, 2011

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Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (Mandarin after midnight)

THE Chinese version of a British stage musical made its debut in Shanghai last week. Zhang Qian finds out whether its original brilliance was lost in translation.

As the curtain rose, the audience found the familiar blue-and-white set of the mythical Greek island where Sophie is to be married the next day. But first she wants to know which of her mother's three boyfriends was he father, so he can give her away. So she has invited all three. Not a very Chinese situation.

But hearing the words spoken and sung in Chinese by Asian actors, though expected, was a surprise.

This is the Chinese version of "Mamma Mia!" - the first Western musical in Chinese that premiered last Friday at Shanghai Grand Theatre.

"Musical theater is quite new in China and few actress in their 40s have the required musical experience," says Tian Shui who plays Sophie's mother Donna.

She was right; she's no exception. She had to summon up all her courage to take on the role, which she managed thanks to 20 years' stage experience and a relatively good voice.

To maintain Donna's somewhat careless, carefree image, Tian kept her hair somewhat disheveled.

The Chinese "Mamma Mia!" has largely preserved the original settings and costumes, according director Paul Garrington, who has also directed versions in German, Swedish, Dutch, Korean, Spanish and Russian.

Critics were watching closely to see if the experiment would work - could a Western musical really be translated almost literally into Chinese and still be faithful to the original spirit and popular with a new audience?

All in all, the audience is happy as most say they loved it.

As the first classic musical adapted into Chinese, this particular production has faced considerable pressure since it was announced.

A major concern, justified as it turned out, was whether there was enough Chinese musical and dancing talent in a country without a tradition of something like Western musical theater.

It was difficult to find an actress to play the feisty, 40-something, single-mom Donna, as it was for the shows in Japan and South Korea.

Tian, a stage actress, was chosen.

Her performance was quite well received and her rendition of "The Winner Takes It All" moved many in the audience to tears.

Having a daughter of her own, Tian says she was moved when she helps Sophie put on her white wedding dress.

"It is the same feeling for any parent in the world," says Tian, "I didn't see enough of you when you were age 2 and then age 5; and over the years we weren't together enough. And now you're getting married."

The main character Sophie is a sweet young woman played by Zhang Fangyu from a musical troupe in Taiwan.

"I liked the story and songs very much, so I auditioned immediately when I heard about the Chinese production," Zhang says.

Raised by a single mother herself, Zhang says she found the role of Sophie very familiar.

"I have been independent in decision making since I was young, and I rarely behaved like a spoiled child, so I am quite similar to Sophie," she says. "I am always committed to the moment when Sophie was so confused with the three-dad issue that she argued with her mother late at night."

Apart from casting, another big problem with the Chinese "Mamma Mia!" was coming up with the right translation.

To convey the humor from English to Chinese required careful translation and consideration of Chinese tastes. The show was revised after a preview at the Daning Theater and the audience reaction was analyzed.

"The story is relatively easy, yet it is very difficult to translate the lyrics that are so internationally famous and precisely written," says director Garrington.

Retaining the rhythm and syllable patterns was important, says Bjorn Ulvaeus, one of the original members of the Swedish pop group ABBA, which wrote the songs.

Rather than directly translating the lyrics into Chinese, the texts were largely rewritten, based on the original, so the Mandarin was more natural and accessible.

"The lyrics are quite funny, and some of them depict parts of our modern life as well," says 28-year-old theater goer Shirley Lin, who really likes the line in "Money, Money, Money," which says "I end up poor after paying off loans and bills."

The show uses some Shanghai dialect and trendy works that evoke laughter.

The major actors and actresses majored either in drama or singing, so despite months of rehearsals, the dancing scenes failed to satisfy some in the audience. "Their bodies are not flexible enough and they miss some of the right positions while dancing," says Michelle Clarks, a British theater producer.


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