‘Mamma Mia’ Big In Mandarin

“Mamma Mia!” has become the first Western musical to open in China with a complete local makeover.

The show premiered at the Daning Theater in Shanghai to a packed house that reacted pretty much the way Western audiences do to the ABBA-based musical: Standing up and cheering for more, giving the show five curtain calls.

It was a huge relief to United Asia Live Entertainment (UAE), the company that produced the show. They weren’t sure how the public would react.

Western musicals like “Les Miserables” and “The Lion King” have been popular in Shanghai since about 2002, but so far all have been in English, including the original version of “Mamma Mia!”

The success of a Mandarin version of the musical is a big boost for UAE, which hopes to make Shanghai the theatrical capital of Asia. As the company’s media director, Lu Wanjun, told CNN, “Mamma Mia!” may not be some people’s idea of a classic musical, but it’s “cheerful and easy to understand.”

Nevertheless, there were problems along the way. British producer Judy Craymer, who staged the original production in the West End, had to look all over China for talent who could handle the roles (two of the leads are actually from Taiwan).

The staff and the venue also offered challenges.

But the greatest obstacle was the translation.

According to Craymer, creating a script in Mandarin “while maintaining the spirit of the show” was very difficult, because “China has a completely different set of cultural references.”

Consequently, some of the lyrics, which treat romance impressionistically, may still baffle Chinese audiences. In addition, the basic story about free love is actually “avant-garde to Chinese,” according to one local scholar interviewed by CNN.

The musical will eventually move to Beijing and then to Guangzhou, closing some time in November. It will then take a break and move on to Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and Singapore. The next foreign production that UAE plans to tackle is “Cats.”