It isn't often that Canberra is included on Australia's musical theatre touring circuit. Still less frequently do shows start here. The national capital is usually considered too small, too lacking an appropriate venue, and too close to Sydney for big companies to bother with, despite the fact that musicals are a popular form of entertainment in the ACT.
So it's quite a coup that the new Australian production of Mamma Mia! is going to begin its national tour in the Canberra Theatre.
With a score filled with songs by Swedish supergroup Abba, the musical, written by Catherine Johnson, has been a huge international success since it premiered in London in 1999. It's been seen by tens of millions of people in many productions around the world and was made into a hit movie in 2008 starring Meryl Streep.
This will be its third Australian production in 16 years.– the first premiered in 2001 and toured Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong and Singapore for four years, playing more than 1500 performances to 2.2 million people.
Louise Withers, one of the producers, has worked on all three and that first Mamma Mia! was the longest-running show she's ever been involved with, even longer than the 1990 Phantom of the Opera, which also had a multi-year run. But such longevity may be a thing of the past.
"I think it's very difficult for a show to achieve that length of run," she says.
"There are so many other entertainment options now: home cinema didn't exist; the internet didn't exist; downloading entertainment didn't exist; there's a lifestyle trend of dining at home."
She also says there's more competition now in terms of big musicals, all vying both for audiences and for venues, so it's a more crowded market. Just in the past year or so, she points out, Australia has seen, among others, Matilda, The Book of Mormon, Kinky Boots, and My Fair Lady as well as the original Australian musical Ladies in Black.
But as long as there's money to be made, producers and venues will continue to put on musicals and the Canberra Theatre Centre is interested in becoming part of that culture.
Withers says she was part of many discussions with the Canberra Business Council, the Arts Minister and the ACT government as to how the national capital could be part of the touring circuit for musicals in Australia.
"When the opportunity came to look at this tour around the countryside, because of the way the dates coincided, it was an opportunity for us to put our faith in Canberra," Withers says.
"It will help generate tourism and put Canberra on the map in terms of these plans."
It helps that Mamma Mia! is a production that could be accommodated in the Canberra Theatre – and the set for this tour was designed specifically for its stage.
For the future, though, Withers says, Canberra will need a larger theatre if it wants to attract more of the big musicals and for some time she's been part of the discussions about building a 1500- to 2000-seat venue in Canberra.
"The government is, as always, careful about its response. It's looking into it. It's on the discussion plate," she says.
"The most important thing, especially for the city, is that people have got to want it and to attend."
But for now, she's focusing on Mamma Mia!. It is, she says, "a show with music everyone loves, and a simple story everyone loves".
Mamma Mia! is set on a Greek island in the late 1990s. Sophie is preparing for her wedding to her fiance, Sky, and wants her father to walk her down the aisle but doesn't know who he is.
She discovers her mother, Donna, doesn't know either - there seem to be three likely candidates. Sophie secretly invites all three men – Harry, Bill and Sam – to the wedding in Donna's name, hoping to discover which of them is her father. But that doesn't prove to be as simple as she had hoped.
And as the story unfolds, many Abba hits are incorporated into the action, including Dancing Queen, Voulez Vous, S.O.S, and Take a Chance On Me.
The broad and timeless appeal of Abba's music is one of the elements Withers says has helped make Mamma Mia! an enduring success.
But using popular songs isn't enough. Plenty of would-be hit jukebox musicals have plundered well-known artists' catalogues and sunk without trace. It's not enough just to have music people know and love.
"As well as that, you have to have a very good story," Withers says. And Mamma Mia! seems to have hit upon just the right mix of humour, heart and humanity, deftly employed to tie the songs together in an audience-pleasing way.
For Natalie O'Donnell, doing Mamma Mia! in 2017-18 is "an incredible full circle". She played Sophie in the original Australian production of Mamma Mia! for 18 months and now gets to play Donna, the mother.
"It's really lucky – you don't often have the opportunity to revisit the same show in a different character – this is my first opportunity to do that," she says.
"It's a gift, there's no other way to describe it. I have an extra 17 years of life experience behind me and I go into it seeing it from an entirely different angle."
When she played 20-year-old Sophie, O'Donnell she was 23; she turned 40 in January and is now the mother of two children – a daughter about to turn 11, and a son who is six – so she can appreciate her characters' perspectives even if her life hasn't been quite the same.
She's been with her husband, fellow actor Simon Gleeson, for many years and they've known each other even longer. They were in the same class at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts and both had Les Miserables as their first professional show after drama school and worked on that first Australian Mamma Mia!
Gleeson isn't in the cast this time around – the men are Ian Stenlake, Phillip Lowe Josef Ber and Stephen Mahy.– but that's not the only change from the original production.
"For the first time, we've been allowed to have a new set design," O'Donnell says. In a musical theatre environment where international rights holders often want each production to hew as closely as possible to the original, this is no small thing.
"Everywhere else in the world has used the original design ... it's really exciting, a really fresh take on it all. The colour palette is just beautiful."
And there's a certain amount of localising.
"We're on a Greek island but we're playing Australian - we could do our own accents," O'Donnell says.
"Familiar accents are part of its accessibility."
But the story –and the songs – remain the same as ever and O'Donnell is old enough to recall Abba in their 1970s heyday and how popular they were in Australia.
"I remember the frenzy when they came to Melbourne at the Hilton, a sea of people waiting under the balcony – it was huge."
While they retained their popularity, they experienced a new rise in the public consciousness with the release of the hit Abba Gold compilation albums and the use of their music in the popular movies The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Muriel's Wedding.
But they've never really gone away and Mamma Mia! has capitalised on, as well as added to, the music's enduring, cross-generational appeal.
O'Donnell says, "Slipping Through My Fingers is a beautiful ballad ... the mother reflects on the experiences she's shared with her daughter.
"I love the up-tempo numbers but I'm a sucker for the ballads."
Sarah Morrison, 27, is playing Sophie in this production and is excited to be returning to Canberra for the second time in 2017. She toured in the lead role of Lisa in Ladies in Black which was also on at the Canberra Theatre.
Like her onstage mother, she says in real life her situation isn't the same as the character she plays – "She's 20 and engaged; I'm 27 and single " – though she has done a lot of travelling and is still quite young.
"We're different but similar."
While she was too young to experience Abba-mania first-hand, she says her parents were big fans and transmitted their enthusiasm to her.
"Abba Gold was a regular in our house when I was growing up."
Morrison saw Mamma Mia! with her mother when she was 11 and says the experience was one of the things that galvanised her into pursuing a performing career.
"It was so colourful, the dancing, the singing – I thought, Wow, that's the job!" They get to do this every day. it was the moment it suddenly clicked that was what I wanted to do."
And all these years later, here she is, performing some of her favourite songs.
She says, "There's something inclusive about Abba music – it doesn't matter who or where you are, everyone can feel something in their songs. They speak to everybody."
Mamma Mia! is on at the Canberra Theatre from November 24 to December 17. canberratheatrecentre.com.au or 62752700.