When the musical Mamma Mia! begins its two-week run at Dubai Opera on Monday, the cast will be just as thrilled as the audience.
The excitement is not only down to performing the hit production, based on the Abba songbook, for the first time in the Middle East. It will also be for the simple pleasureof taking their masks off for the first time since arriving in the UAE.
As British cast members Lucy May Barker and Sara Poyzer explain to The National, this is what it means to perform onstage during the pandemic.
"The safety measures for the show are immense and we have a safety officer with us who is doing a brilliant job in making sure there are stringent measures so we are all safe," she says.
"We test daily, there is hand sanitiser everywhere.
“Rehearsals have been, I don't know if the right word is challenging, but it was also done in a way where we are all looking after each other.
“That means we are wearing masks and visors at all times and it is only when we get on the stage that we remove them all."
Watch and learn
The measures have been working so far, with Mamma Mia! coming to Dubai on the back of a month-long UK tour of outdoor shows.
The fact the UK production is now making its first international foray during the pandemic has made it a talking point within the industry.
"The fantastic thing about our industry is that we do all want each other to succeed, so it’s less about being watched and more about how can we learn from each other," Barker says.
"Hopefully, we can all work together to find the right ways to make things work in this brand new world."
That said, some of the enduring rules of show business make the industry well-equipped to deal with a pandemic.
“A show is never really cancelled because we are all replaceable. As part of the safety measures, everybody has three or four understudies,” Poyzer says.
“What we have also done on our UK shows is ensure people from different departments are living with each other to minimise the risks.
“So if something awful happens and a person catches Covid, then only three or four people need to isolate.”
If you can’t speak, then sing
With such painstaking measures taken, no wonder each show feels like an emotional and physical release for all involved.
What also helps is Mamma Mia! being the perfect vehicle for such catharsis, with its heart-warming tale of love, family and second chances.
Written by British playwright Catherine Johnson and featuring a dozen Abba hits, the show premiered in London’s West End in 1999 before going on to New York's Broadway district two years later.
Set on a Greek island, the story follows Sophie's quest to find her father before her wedding.
In addition to the hilarity of some of the oddball characters, including three men who could each be her dad, the story's emotional core lies in the complicated relationship between Sophie and mum Donna, played by Barker and Poyzer respectively.
While that bond was well portrayed by Academy Award-winning actress Meryl Streep and Amanda Seyfried in the 2008 film adaptation, Barker says the stage format does offer more dynamism than the big screen.
"It is a different kind of way of telling a story, particularly if it is an emotional one," Barker says.
"In musical theatre, a character will sing when they no longer have any words to speak.
“If they can't express themselves any more with the spoken word, then that's when they burst into song. Mamma Mia! does that perfectly in finding that right balance."
Getting the voice in shape
But we are still talking about well-known songs.
Will it be a challenge for the cast to find the emotional resonance in earworms SOS and The Winner Takes It All?
"It can be to a certain extent because what we are asked to do in the show is to theatricalise pop songs," Poyzer says.
"So when I sing The Winner Takes It All, I am not doing it the way Agnetha and Frida [Abba vocalists Agnetha Faltskog and Anni-Frid ‘Frida’ Lyngstad] are doing it – which they did absolutely brilliantly – as pop songs.
“We are trying to dramatise it and sing as actors."
Such an approach, Barker says, is more complicated than it seems.
"I come more from a classical theatre background, so to come do a show that is more 'poppy,' if you will, is totally different from what I am used to," she says.
"It is a form of vocal gymnastics to blend both worlds together and it takes a lot of preparation to get your voice to that state."
It’s not all about the hits
With Mamma Mia! being the seventh longest-running the West End show, in addition to the Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story, the Queen-inspired We Will Rock You and Michael Jackson hit fest Thriller – Live, it is tempting to think all you need for successful music are classic pop tunes.
"Yes, Mamma Mia! is coming to Dubai but you also have to think about the other shows that didn't because they were never successful in the West End," Poyzer cautions.
"There has been a mistake from some producers who think we'll get the songs, put a cast together and weave a loose story though.”
From the stage to the screen, Barker says it all comes down to a good story.
“People want drama. While there are lot of bands whose songs will be great in a musical, the show will not work if there is not just a good story, but a clever one,” she says.
“Both really have to complement each other."
'Mamma Mia!' will run at Dubai Opera on Monday to Saturday, September 13 to 25. Show times are 8pm and 2pm (Friday and Saturday matinees); tickets from Dh295 at dubaiopera.com