For the past week, you’ve probably been hearing a lot of the name “Abba.” The good news is that the song-and-dance spectacle now running at the Shubert is not a wacky musical about a certain Israeli elder statesman; the other news (good or bad, depending on your pop sensitivities) is that its 135 minutes feature 22 numbers from a 1970s arena band whose catchy if inoffensive tunes were created by rockers bred in polite and hygienic Sweden.
I’ll admit that I’ve never been clear about the significance of ABBA, other than that the band’s moniker is an acronym of its members’ first names (Agnetha, Benny, Björn and Anni-Frid). Back in their heyday of the late 1970s, a kind of Justinian twilight of fop rock, ABBA seemed so weirdly sweet in its froufy Lycra outfits and blow-dried coifs, yet so promiscuous in its embrace of styles, ranging all over the pop atlas from straight-ahead rock to Euro-ballad to disco. Here was a band that made millions by not recording in its native language and by eschewing the outlaw swagger of the northern latitudes for the bouncy melodies associated with Latin romance. Theirs was the music of blond Europe on Mediterranean holiday, the soundtrack to an endless Mentos commercial.
Likewise, I’ll be the first to confess that I don’t really understand the appeal of Mamma Mia!, a musical whose book, by Catherine Johnson, is too silly to be taken seriously, yet not over the top enough to warrant a camp merit badge. Johnson certainly had her work cut out for her: Instead of writing Mamma Mia!’s songs to propel a story or concept (à la The Who’s Tommy or Richard O’Brien’s The Rocky Horror Show), she had to do it the other way around, constructing a book that accommodated nearly two dozen ABBA classics. Given this onerous challenge, I suppose she should be congratulated. And yet . . .
For the record, the story revolves around a group of Anglophones (various Brits, Yanks and an Aussie) visiting a Greek island. Twenty-year-old Sophie Sheridan (Tina Maddigan) is about to marry in a white-wedding ceremony at the tourist hotel/taverna run by her mother, Donna (Louise Pitre). In her own day (on the musical cusp between glam and punk), Mom was a gypsy-spirited rocker who fronted a trio called Donna and the Dynamos — and who gave birth to Sophie out of wedlock. Having discovered Donna’s diary for the year 1979, Sophie learns that she was sired by one of three men who dallied on the island with Sheridan mère during one fateful summer; armed with this terrible knowledge, she sets out to learn the true identity of her father by inviting all three (Lee MacDougall, David Mucci and Gary P. Lynch) to the wedding, setting in motion a series of awkward confrontations and opportunities for great costume parades.
The evening’s basic format has two characters talking, until one breaks into the first line of an ABBA hit, whereupon the audience will either ooh or aah, or perhaps laugh, according to how seamless or preposterous the segue appears, always mindful of the fact that the dialogue had, somehow, to fit the songs. (To soften the artifice, Johnson occasionally breaks up the lyrics to a given song with a line or two of conversation.) The story, then, becomes almost irrelevant, a faint narrative pulse we occasionally monitor as Sophie must pick one of her mother’s former lovers to ask to give her away at the altar. And there is a wisp of a subplot involving the friendship of Donna and her two former Dynamos (Mary Ellen Mahoney and Gabrielle Jones).
Mamma Mia! is about nothing if not fun, of the kind that delights in non sequitur. There is something not quite on kilter, for example, about “Our Last Summer”’s visual references to Donna’s summer of love, embodied by flower-appliquéd bell-bottoms, floppy felt hats, puffing the magic dragon . . . and this is 1979, remember. Likewise, her daughter’s grim insistence on a traditional wedding — in the middle of the Aegean, to her laughably opaque beau, an ex–Wall Streeter named Sky (Adam Brazier) — seems as outlandish as the little bits of “plot” foreshadowing we receive. (A dinghy has “Waterloo” stenciled on its prow, a reference to the song that launched ABBA to fame in 1974.) Even the Anglo-Saxon names of Sophie’s choices for dad (Harry Bright, Bill Austin, Sam Carmichael) go clunk in the Mediterranean night, as though spoken in a badly dubbed movie.
Mamma Mia!’s dazzle lies not in its literary complexities, then, but in the pure showmanship of its presentation. British director Phyllida Lloyd, who has been with the production since its London premiere, wisely lets the songs, by ABBA founders Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, do the talking, keeping her actors as colorful ornaments, spun around and around by choreographer Anthony Van Laast, who seems to recognize the fact that long before MTV, ABBA was a rock video waiting to happen. (In one of his more inspired numbers, hitched to the song “Under Attack,” the ensemble, dressed in matching swimwear and life vests, engage in a dreamy ballet bathed in black light.)
Pitre’s pipes do stand out, however, and her solo of “The Winner Takes It All” is a genuine showstopper; she also imbues her Donna with sufficient grit, and regret, to make the character rise above the others. Similarly, Mahoney’s towering blond, Tanya — she of so many failed “jet-set marriages” — brings her comedian’s chops to the fore with admirable results.
In one sense, Mamma Mia! is a design showcase. The action is overseen by an upstage scrim that converts from a hypnotically rippling sea to a tranquil sky, suggesting an endless summer far from decay, rent notices or musical challenges. The scrim’s designer, Mark Thompson, adds to the carefree idyll with costumes that arc from Sky’s tight white jeans, to the Dynamos’ sateen-and-platform-boot ensembles, to neon-hued bathing suits. Thompson’s set is dominated by two curving, hemispherical ramps, which, while unfortunately reminding one of a pair of filo-dough wraps, easily multitask to become dockside towers, courtyard walls or interior backdrops. Finally, the ensemble’s singing voices are universally strong, even if not everyone has an assertive speaking voice, and the nine-piece orchestra, led by chief keyboardist Rob Preuss, drives home the songs with gusto.
My personal bafflement notwithstanding, the enormous success of both the band and Mamma Mia! cannot be denied. (You can hardly condemn a show for catering to the band’s numerous partisans.) ABBA continues to sell well, especially in the Spanish-speaking market, and the band recently declined a billion-dollar arrangement to reunite and tour. (Does anyone have the right to turn down that kind of money?) The musical was a potent surprise hit on London’s West End as soon as it opened in 1999, and subsequently toured Toronto and San Francisco; the L.A. engagement precedes its Broadway arrival, scheduled for later this year.
And so the ABBA juggernaut continues. Just as any effort to explain it is doomed to fail, all attempts at applying rational standards of dramaturgy to Mamma Mia! are ultimately futile. Sophie could, of course, find out who her real father is by springing for a DNA test — but that, we feel by curtain fall, would be cheating. In a world fed on rock candy, deference is not paid to the contemporary cult of DNA, but to the age of ABBA, ELO, ELP and BTO.
MAMMA MIA! | Songs by BJÖRN ULVAEUS and BENNY ANDERSSON | Book by CATHERINE JOHNSON | At the SHUBERT THEATER, 2020 Avenue of the Stars, Century City Through May 12