Will a Mandarin Mamma Mia! Be Lost in Translation?

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Courtesy United Asia Live Entertainment

The silver jumpsuits are accented with the appropriate number of sequins, the sleeves and pant-legs suitably flared. The story hasn't changed — a winsome young woman, about to be married in Greece, invites three of her mother's former lovers to the wedding in an effort to find out which one is her father, and zaniness ensues. Only the lyrics to the songs provide a tip-off this is not your classic staging of Mamma Mia!:

"Ni jiu shi 'Dancing Queen', shi qi sui, tianmei duo nianqing!"

Apparently, there's just no stopping ABBA's relentless march across the globe. A dozen years after the musical's debut in London's West End, a Mandarin-language version of Mamma Mia! opens this month in China, just in time for the 90th anniversary of the country's Communist Party. Though the musical has already been performed in over 10 languages — from Russian to Korean — this latest incarnation marks a breakthrough on a couple of fronts. For one, China has a fairly limited knowledge of ABBA — for better or worse — given the fact it was still reeling from the Cultural Revolution when the Swedish quartet burst on the scene in the 1970s. It's also the first time a major Western musical has been translated into Mandarin for an extended national tour.

All that remains to be seen now is how Chinese audiences will take to it. Although tours of English-language musicals like Cats, The Lion King and 42nd Street have become massively popular in China in recent years — including a short run of Mamma Mia! in Beijing and Shanghai in 2007 — the plans for this Mandarin-language production are much more ambitious: it will play for a month in Shanghai this summer (opening July 8), then move to Beijing and Guangzhou later in the year. A second tour is planned next year for second-tier mainland cities, as well as Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and Singapore.

There's also the question of whether people will relate to the story or to Chinese actors playing Western characters while singing largely unfamiliar songs. The British director, Paul Garrington, who has previously taken translated versions of Mamma Mia! to seven countries (including even Sweden), was initially concerned about this, but he believes there are enough universalities in the script to transcend cultural boundaries. "Let's face it, [a story] about a woman who sleeps with three men 20 years ago and the consequences of that, it's not a particularly Chinese story," he told TIME in between rehearsals in Shanghai. "But there's something infectious in the music and something about the other relationships in the story — it's a story about strong friendships and it's a story about mothers and daughters."

The translation of the script is nearly word-for-word, with slight tweaks to add the occasional Chinese cultural reference or a joke in the local dialect, Shanghainese, to help the audience connect with the story. The choreography also remains unchanged from the London musical. The result is a production decidedly more risqué than the typical Peking opera, with plenty of wine guzzling, pelvic thrusts and shirtless male dancers. The Chinese cultural authorities tend to frown upon these sorts of things, but Garrington said he's been comfortable with the steamier content because the cast has been fine with it. "We maybe had to be a little bit careful with some of the more fruity references in the text, but not as much as I expected," he said. A reference to male ejaculation was cut, as was a play on words involving the term "counter-revolutionary."

This more relaxed attitude may be tied to the fact that China has a lot riding on Mamma Mia!. After Beauty and the Beast became the first Broadway show to be performed in Chinese for a four-week run in Beijing in 1999, other smaller translated shows followed: the off-Broadway musical I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change and short runs of Jane Eyre and Fame in Beijing. But bigger touring projects have been trickier to pull off. In 2007, the China Arts and Entertainment Group (CAEG), a government agency overseen by the Culture Ministry, announced a much-ballyhooed joint venture with the British producer Cameron Mackintosh to bring a slew of translated productions to China — beginning with Les Miserables — but the partnership fell apart due to lack of funding and skilled technicians and a dispute over the use of theaters.

Now, however, with the government increasingly eager to develop a domestic theater scene to rival that of Broadway, there's more of an impetus to see a project like Mamma Mia! succeed. To that end, the joint venture behind the show — comprised of CAEG, the Shanghai Media Group and the South Korean conglomerate CJ Group — is heavily subsidizing the $6.2 million price-tag to keep ticket prices low and help ensure larger audiences. The cheapest ticket for the Shanghai show will be $15.

"The goal is to produce original Chinese musical products that feature the Chinese culture, and for which we own the intellectual property," said Tian Yuan, the general manager of United Asia Live Entertainment, the joint venture behind the musical. "Mamma Mia! is absolutely essential — it is the first step towards the integration of talent, capital, concept and marketing strategy."

David Lightbody, the executive producer of the Chinese production of Mamma Mia! who also worked on the earlier joint venture with Mackintosh, said the industry has the potential to be "massive" with the right kind of commitment in place. "Finding the right people willing to take risks and have the capability to deliver on a commercial theater project like this was very difficult. But the barriers began to fall away about 18 months ago," he said. "I cannot stress enough how exciting and big the market is going to be in five to 10 years."

But first, he'll be happy if Mamma Mia! gets decent reviews. So far, the mostly young audiences at the preview performances seem impressed. Ada Yao, a 28-year-old from Shanghai, said during intermission at a recent show that she loved how different it was from the traditional Chinese theater. "This is very European, very open," she said. "I'm not sure if people can get used to this style, but I like it — this is my style, too."