KARACHI, Pakistan — On large billboards across Karachi, three smiling faces that would seem more at home on Broadway stare out at passers-by.
The trio is better known to theater-goers half a world away as Donna and the Dynamos, from the musical, "Mamma Mia!"
Now, a small but savvy Pakistani audience is itself swinging to a "best of" selection of Abba songs and local performers are bowing to standing ovations.
The musical’s 15-day run was short by American standards, but packed the Karachi Arts Council auditorium to capacity — 425 people — every show. And while many schools and universities across the country remain closed in the aftermath of a series of attacks — one on an educational institution in Islamabad on Oct. 20 that killed six — fear of being targeted by terrorists didn’t stop some 7,000 Karachiites from turning out.
During the 11 years of authoritarian rule by Gen. Zia-ul-Haq, between 1977 and 1988, the arts in Pakistan suffered debilitating blow after blow. But the country underwent a cultural revival of sorts under Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who oversaw the establishment of the National Academy for Performing Arts in 2005.
Now, a new generation of Pakistanis, governed by civilians but faced with the seemingly ever-present threat of terrorist (mainly Taliban) attack, appears unwilling to have a rare outlet for social and cultural expression taken away.
"At a very basic level, its family-style entertainment,” said Nida Butt, the director, whose company, Made for Stage Productions, staged the show. “It’s escapism. You forget about your problems, you make people happy.”
Butt, 28, also directed the musical "Chicago" last year, a show that ran a total of 32 nights, first in Karachi and then in Lahore — two of Pakistan’s biggest, wealthiest and most cosmopolitan centers. She’s already thinking about a third musical and planning to tour "Mamma Mia!" outside of Karachi.
Butt hopes that providing a space for musicals and theater will encourage the birth of a homegrown commercial theater industry: “I had to fly to another country to see my first musical on West End. I was 25 years old! A lot of young people have come and watched this. I hope that maybe this makes them think that they can be actors, singers and dancers and that can be their profession.”
Setting that example is 29-year-old Kiran Choudhry, who plays the lead role of Donna Sheridan. Educated as a lawyer and a graduate of Oxford University who started singing early under the tutelage of Ustad Fateh Ali Khan, an internationally acclaimed vocalist and a star in the complex domain of eastern classical music. In 2006, after taking voice lessons from VoxBox in London, Choudhry ditched her job and her career as a corporate lawyer and returned to Pakistan to pursue her true passion: singing. She is now the lead singer of her band, Caramel, despite her father’s wish that she would one day become the president of Pakistan.
In "Mamma Mia!," Choudhry captivated audiences with her vocal range and adaptation of the lead role.
A theater industry by Western standards may be a long way off, but Made for Stage productions, which focuses on commercial, entertaining theater, is working hard to increase its visibility. Its chief sponsorship for "Mamma Mia!" came from McDonald's.
During Zia's time, the only performing arts that were allowed were folk dance and music. Many Pakistani artists were either silenced or went into exile. It’s only in recent years that an effort has been made to make up for lost time.
The National Academy for Performing Arts, Karachi’s main theater academy, largely focuses on more serious performances than "Mamma Mia!" Its latest work was an Urdu language translation of Anton Chekhov’s "The Seagull."
Even if the scale and scope of "Mamma Mia!" was larger, Karachi, a city of anywhere between 9 and 15 million residents (depending whose statistics you believe), a performance in English priced at 1,500 rupees (about $20) can hardly be called a mainstream success.
To the audiences that poured in to watch "Mamma Mia!" every night for 15 nights, that seemed largely irrelevant. A happy humming cacophony of Abba tunes could be distinctly heard in the Karachi sky.
Even the city on alert with Tehrik-e-Taliban setting off bombs in public spaces across the country, didn’t dampen spirits.
Changing the mood in Pakistan — that is partly what drove Butt and her team as they staged "Mamma Mia!"
"Given all this negativity that is reigning supreme in our country, we need pockets of vibrant life and joy," Choudhry said. "On one level it destroys that negativity, it breaks its hold ... I’ve absolutely no issues if the Taliban are around the corner. It makes me want to get on stage even more and shake it out."