6 things you need to know about the Chinese ‘Mamma Mia!’

6 things you need to know about the Chinese ‘Mamma Mia!’

From "realistic" love scenes to folk dancing, these changes make the Chinese version different from the West End smash

After a year of preparation and three months of rehearsals, the highly anticipated Chinese version of “Mamma Mia!” will open Friday, July 8, at Shanghai Grand Theatre.

The stage drama has drummed up much enthusiasm among Shanghainese theater buffs, who are curious to see how one of China’s first translated attempts of a classic Western musical will turn out.

Although the Chinese “Mamma Mia!” is meant to be as close as possible to the West End original, Chinese touches are sprinkled throughout the show.

1. Chinese folk dances

mamma mia -- sophieSophie and Sky on the night before their wedding.

Localized dance routines have been strong selling points in most international adaptations of “Mamma Mia!” In the Chinese version, Chinese folk dances take center stage.

In the scene set on the night before Sophie and Sky’s wedding, Sky’s eight friends come forth to tease the couple. Uyghur, Tibetan and Mongolian dances are all featured in this segment.

When Donna’s best friend, Rosie, confesses her love for Bill in one of the final scenes, she breaks into a lithe performance of the Twisting Yangko (扭秧歌), a traditional Chinese folk dance.

All this, performed on a little Greek island.

2. Multiple dialects

mamma mia -- tanyaTanya (left) turns Shanghainese for the Chinese production.

The Chinese production will hit three cities this year -- Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. To accommodate regional audiences, actors will spout local slang within the mainly Mandarin script.

In Shanghai, renowned Shanghainese singer Shen Xiaocen, who plays the role of Tanya, peppers her lines with Shanghainese slang in order to find favor with local audiences.

Audiences will be able to detect traces of Beijinghua in the version performed up north, and Cantonese phrases in the Guangzhou shows.

As producers of the Chinese version plan to target the entire Mandarin-speaking region, sprinklings of Taiwanese and Singaporean dialects will be added to the script in the future.

3. Provocative love scenes

mamma mia -- groupTight, revealing costumes mark the Chinese version of "Mamma Mia!"

“The love scenes in the Chinese version will be realistic; we won’t dilute anything and we definitely won’t cut out anything,” says Lu Wanjun, media director of the show’s production company, United Asia Live Entertainment (UAE).

The Chinese “Mamma Mia!” will likely be the most provocative musical recently performed in Shanghai. In the slightly more than three-hour performance, hugs, caresses, kisses and other scenes of intimacy are plentiful.

Making this feel natural is no easy feat for the cast.

For example, one of the scenes requires a young male actor to cup both hands over Tanya's breasts. In the early stages of rehearsals, the shy male actor could not complete the scene without turning tomato red from embarrassment.

4. Painstakingly crafted Chinese lyrics

mamma mia -- money"Money, money, money, must be funny, in the [Chinese] rich man's world."

The lyrics of musical’s Chinese version were jointly penned by two Tsinghua University students, Cheng He and Jia Yi, under the guidance of Taiwanese musician Chen Lerong, who has worked on many Chinese music classics.

In order for the show’s English creators to understand and approve the changes, the Chinese lyrics were first translated from English, then put back into English.

Symbolic phrases such as “Money, Money, Money,” “Dancing Queen” and “Mamma Mia” have all been kept in English.

Check out a few lines from the Chinese “Dancing Queen,” translated back into English:

“You trigger his desire, light the fire and leave. You turn around in a daze to find a new prey. You need to stride to dance, once there’s the stage, you are the dancing queen.”

5. Large-scale auditions

mamma mia -- zhang fangyuChosen from more than 1,000 applicants, Zhang Fangyu (right) won the role of Sophie. Zhang has said she's already weary of being nitpicked for her Taiwanese accent on stage.

Due to a lack of professional musical actors in Shanghai and throughout China, auditions were held across the country by UAE to find the cast for the Chinese “Mamma Mia!”

More than 2,000 hopefuls turned up at auditions. The lead role of Sophie inspired the fiercest competition.

From more than 1,000 applicants, 23-year-old Taiwanese actress Zhang Fangyu was chosen to play Sophie. The audition marked her first time on the mainland from Taiwan.

Zhang believes that Sophie’s on-stage persona is similar to her off-stage self.

“Sophie’s character is much like mine," Zhang says. "I’m quite boyish and very daring. I’ll try everything." 

The three motherly characters are played separately by Chinese top-notch stage actress Tian Shui (Donna), Shanghainese singer Shen Xiaocen (Tanya) and Beijing vocalist Yang Zhuqing (Rosie).

6. Younger and slimmer

mamma mia -- poseBoth the Chinese Donna (middle) and Rosie (right) are much younger and slimmer than their Western counterparts.

Compared with their Western counterparts, the Chinese cast is not only much slimmer, but also younger.

The most obvious examples are Sophie’s three possible fathers. All three actors are in their early thirties. In scenes they share with Tanya, they might each pass as her boyfriend.

“We believe the key to how believable the on-stage characters are lies in their rich personalities and inner depth, rather than just appearances,” says Lu Wanjun.

Chinese "Mamma Mia!", July 8-August 5, Shanghai Grand Theatre (上海大剧院), 300 Renmin Da Dao, near Huangpi Bei Lu, RMB 99-880, Tel: + 86 400 818 3333, www.mamma-mia.caeg.cn