For a few glorious years in the late Noughties, musical theatre reigned over the weekend television schedules. On Saturday nights, we could turn on BBC One to watch drama school hopefuls trying to sing and dance their way to a leading role in a major West End production, ideally one with lyrics that could double up as a decent TV show title.
The search for a new Joseph became Any Dream Will Do, the hunt for a Nancy for Oliver! was branded I’d Do Anything (I still wonder why they never tried making a Les Mis spin-off, when “Do You Hear the People Sing?” was there for the taking). Each time, Andrew Lloyd Webber would be on judging duties, critiquing contestants from a massive gold throne. But after the Wizard of Oz-inspired competition Over the Rainbow – a search not just for a new Dorothy, but for a dog who could play Toto, too – came to an end in 2010, it seemed as if the curtain had fallen on this surreal subgenre of British reality telly.
Until now, that is. ITV has decided to put its own spin on this old format – and the secret ingredient is Abba. Next year, the wildly successful jukebox musical turned cinema phenomenon Mamma Mia! will celebrate its 25th anniversary. To mark the occasion, theatre super-producer Judy Craymer is launching a televised hunt for two rising stars to play young couple Sophie and Sky in the stage show. The competition is called I Have a Dream – but you’d probably guessed that already.
If you’re not familiar with the Mamma Mia! multiverse, all you need to know is this: Sophie, played by Amanda Seyfried in the film, is the bride-to-be who invites all three of her potential dads to her wedding, without telling her mum Donna (Meryl Streep) about these last-minute additions to the guest list. Sky, her fiancé, is definitely not in the show’s top five memorable roles (on screen, he is played by Dominic Cooper), which lowers the stakes slightly for the male contestants. And all of this takes place on a Greek island, giving I Have a Dream’s producers the perfect excuse to film their competition in Corfu.
The opener plays out like an extremely camp spin on the “judges’ houses” segment of The X Factor. Presenter Zoe Ball, dressed in Meryl-esque dungarees, and judges Amber Riley, Jessie Ware, Alan Carr and Samantha Barks are all in high spirits, doubtless because they’ve managed to bag a lucrative working holiday. Riley and Barks have impressive musical theatre credentials (the former was a staggering Effie in the West End revival of Dreamgirls back in 2016, while the latter graduated from I’d Do Anything to star in shows such as Frozen and Les Mis). Ware brings her ear for pop music and a genuine love of Abba to the rustic stone table (she even got married on the island where the Mamma Mia! movie was filmed). Carr is upfront about the fact that he can’t sing or dance, but he does know how to work a stage and is extremely handy with a bizarre quip. “The wind kept blowing your fringe up like the lid on a pedal bin,” he declares to one wannabe Sky after an emotional rendition of “Knowing Me, Knowing You”.
Seven men and seven women are in the running to bag that career-changing contract from Craymer, many of whom are barely out of drama school. After being introduced in a musical sequence in which the “Sophies” pick oranges and look wistful in boats and the “Skys” are filmed doing various island odd jobs, they file into the villa. The girls dress in floaty skirts and boho blouses; the boys have been given a job lot of loudly patterned short-sleeved shirts worthy of a Love Island leading man. No wonder 23-year-old Darcy seems to forget which show he’s signed up for when the “Sophies” arrive. “Some of them have caught my eye,” he smirks.
His distraction, though, is only temporary. After all, no one wants this chance to “slip through their fingers”, as Ball puts it, in one of her many wink-wink lyrical references (over the course of 90 minutes, she has a good crack at trying to namecheck every song on ABBA Gold). For their first challenge, the contestants split into small groups to rehearse an Abba classic under the tutelage of two Mamma Mia! experts, choreographer Anthony Van Laast and musical director Martin Lowe.
Later, they must perform in front of a live audience comprising Craymer, the judges, and some mildly bemused holidaymakers. Van Laast’s routines lean into the ridiculousness of the whole endeavour. “Waterloo” becomes a history lesson with textbooks. “SOS” gets boyband-worthy dance moves and matching outfits; when the heavens open mid-performance, Ball gasps that it’s “like a Magic Mike show!” Some of the contestants are a more immediately obvious fit for musical theatre than others (one of the boys admits he “usually sing[s] Paolo Nutini”) but the calibre is high, especially given that for a few of them, I Have a Dream was their very first audition.
The pace sags a little as the performances continue. It pains me to suggest abridging the masterworks of Benny and Björn, but I’m not convinced we need to hear each track in its entirety. And if the contestants keep powering through the band’s discography at this rate, won’t they have exhausted all of the biggest crowd-pleasers before the series hits the halfway mark (much as I’d love to see them belting out a rendition of, say, “The Visitors” or “The Day Before You Came” in the final)? Still, these are minor quibbles. I Have a Dream captures the slightly unhinged party atmosphere of the film, and the stage show that came before it. Bring on the inevitable spin-off series where Craymer tries to cast the three dads. How can you resist it?