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Shmukler hits high note in Mamma Mia



Gina Shmukler, Johannesburg-based actress, director, and producer, will be taking the role of Donna in the international hit musical Mamma Mia first in Cape Town and then Johannesburg. The SA Jewish Report caught up with her between rehearsals.

Playing Donna in Mamma Mia is a plum role. How do you feel about playing it for a second time?

A couple of years ago, I saw the United Kingdom’s touring production in Singapore, and I thought I would never do the show again. It seemed very old. It was created 25 years ago. However, when producer Hazel Feldman called me to discuss Donna and shared that we would be creating a new version with an all-South African creative team, I was excited and said yes. But I did have to go through the audition process.

What does Mamma Mia and the music of Abba represent to you as a child of the 80s?

The 80s for me were Boy George, Simply Red, and Duran Duran. Abba didn’t really feature. Is that terrible to admit?

How would you describe Donna in Mamma Mia? What’s her message?

Donna is hard shelled in some ways. She fell pregnant at a time when as she says she couldn’t go home an unmarried mom. She has built a life and a home for herself and her daughter, Sophie, on an island in Greece. She’s strong and vulnerable, wants love and denies it, but her message is, “I can do this on my own.”

What did it take to get into the role once again?

Phew! I haven’t done a big role like Donna for many, many years. I’ve been in vocal boot camp since July last year with my coach in New York. The vocal track of Donna is no joke.

I had to get my body fit again – rehabilitate my knee – and thankfully, I have a wonderful team, both amazing young Jewish therapists who have worked with me to get here.

Has it been different playing her in 2024 than it was when you were nominated for two awards for your role?

I’m 14 years older than when I played Donna, and these bones feel it too, but I bring 14 more years of life experience to the role. I’m at a much better age for Donna. I’m now a mother too, not playing a mother. For me, as I have aged, my friendships, my soul friends, are so key in my life. They are a form of family, and this story is about the friendship of three women – Donna, Rosie, and Tanya – lifelong friends and “aunties” to Sophie.

You’ve acted and directed many in strong female roles. Which have resonated with you and why?

For now, Shirley Valentine remains my favourite female role. Funnily, she went to Greece too. She muses over losses and life, and ultimately finds herself there, accepting who she is, embracing life and living.

It was also the most wonderful experience directing actress Natasha Sutherland, and witnessing the audience’s response to an old play with an evergreen story.

What were the best and most challenging parts about playing Donna?

I love Donna – she’s so human and unaffected, but the technical demands of the role are challenging. Singing The winner takes it all – as we call the “nine o’clock number” – meaning it’s the climax of the show after an exhausting two hours, is intensely challenging.

What was it like being on stage again with old friends/colleagues and some new stars?

It’s been wonderful to work with Kate Normington and Ilse Klink again. We know each other, we trust each other, and we laugh. A lot!

I’m working with creative friends on our team too – the extraordinary director Janice Honeyman; musical director Charl-Johan Lingenfelder; and choreographer Duane Alexander – we’re all growing up and older together.

The younger members of the cast are phenomenally good. Our industry is birthing amazing new talent. I hope our country can retain them as our industry needs investment.

You’re an actress, director, producer, teacher, and have written theatrical productions. Which is your favourite role/job and why?

The stage is my home. It’s my first love, but with a family, one has to make choices, and that has been one of the primary reasons why I’ve not done a big show in a long time as the demands of being away are huge. I will have been in Cape Town for more than eight weeks. I never thought I would say this, but I miss Jozi!

As far as my work goes and the different hats I wear, they all do feed off each other, helping me to remain oiled and muscled in my work as I move between spaces.

You’ve performed all over the world. What are the Cape Town and Johannesburg audiences like, and how do they compare to international audiences?

We haven’t started performing yet, but people are people. South African audiences are pretty generous, and Lord knows, we need timeout and escape from the chaos we live in, and that’s Mamma Mia, great music with a heartfelt story and a happy ending.

What do you want Mamma Mia audiences to take home?

I hope they leave feeling light and joyous, and proud of this all-South African production.

  • “Mamma Mia” opens on 7 March at the Artscape Opera House in Cape Town and on 13 April at Montecasino in Johannesburg. Tickets are available at

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