That Old Feeling: ABBA, Without Apologies

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Since its premiere on April 6, 1999, 25 years to the day after ABBA's Eurovision triumph, "Mamma Mia!" has become a worldwide hit. I know, because over the past two years, in three different countries — England (London), Canada (Toronto) and the U.S. (San Francisco) — I tried and failed to get tickets. Nothing worked: exploiting the good graces of TIME's London office, begging publicists, standing in line for two hours hoping for return seats.

I finally caught up with the original production this May; and after two years and a couple of cast changes, it looked and sounded ragged. The performers, who are obliged to do little but exude good humor, had a bedraggled air. And the sound system was so amateur and unbalanced that I would have sworn all the songs were lip-synched, until one of the singers' voices cracked. Well, I already knew, a presumably spiffier Broadway version would open in October (with an enormous $27 million advance). I figured I could change my mind, take a chance on "Mamma Mia!" Now it's October.

As the lights go down in the Winter Garden Theatre, an unseen, authoritative voice concludes the usual pre-show caveats with this: "We must also warn patrons of a nervous disposition that platform boots and spandex are worn in this production." (Gentle laughter from the audience.) They should be given another warning: that the first and second acts begin with twangs of an electric guitar so tympanic-membrane-splitting that Rush Limbaugh would ask them to turn it down. I can't say whether these blasts are meant as a test or as torture, but for the rest of the evening the sound system works well. And the production has a more professional sheen here than it did in London.

We're on an island in the Aegean, suggested by a building of off-white stucco fronting a blue sky; the island's only evident connection to the mainland is a dingy dinghy called the Waterloo. Mother Donna (Louise Pitre, with a big, dusky alto voice, and mannerisms to match) runs the local taverna; her daughter Sophie is about to get married. Sophie (pretty, perky Tina Maddigan), who hasn't been told who her dad is, find the names of three men mentioned in her mother's diary and surreptitiously invites them to the wedding. They show up, to Donna's chagrin, and complications, of a staid and predictable nature, ensue. As Sophie synopsizes 10 minutes before it's all over: "You wait 20 years for a father, and then three come along at the same time."(The plot is lifted from a 1969 Melvin Frank comedy, "Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell," starring Gina Lollobrigida as the mom and Janet Margolin and the daughter.)

In British musicals, including incomprehensible perennials like "Blood Brothers" and "Starlight Express," it's often hard to tell when they're sending up tackiness from when they're just being tacky. I wish the principal performers, most of them Canadian, had bit more stage presence (paging Faith Prince, Rebecca Luker and, always, Martin Short). I wish the studiously kitschy choreography, by Anthony Van Laast, had the wit both to satirize disco dancing and to display its sweaty, contentless vitality (paging Susan Strohman). I wish the show, directed by Phyllida Lloyd, could transcend its modest restraints and get jizzy — provide the kick the songs do (paging Baz Luhrmann, who could have slapped together a vertiginous phantasmagoria in about three days).

Instead, "Mamma Mia!" plays like its own bus-and-truck company. I kept waiting, and wading, through a lot of non-singing exposition for the show to come to life. It threatened to with the agreeably sung and staged title tune. You can almost hear the audience yearning to explode into applause at the song's end. But instead of allowing that sweet release, Lloyd starts the set revolving, and the song ebbs meekly away. Note to would-be directors of musicals: a scene change is not a climax. CPR does not arrive until Donna and her two friends (Karen Mason and Judy Kaye) don their rocketship-retro garb and do the disco darnedest with "Dancing Queen." Almost despite itself, the show gets on its feet.

The show set itself the easiest goal: affectless warmth playing off ABBA nostalgia. The show enjoys making fun of the disco era, and winks at the audience so much it seems to have soot in its eye. Playgoers familiar with ABBA get a giggle at the naive cunning of the song cues. Pitre sings "I don't want to talk" and the crowd audibly smiles in recognition of another hit ("The Winner Takes It All"). Judy Kaye, one of the few Broadway pros on view, strikes a vampish pose and warbles, "If you change your mind..."; more laughs. Sometimes the songs fit the story, other times not. One of the men, singing "Our Last Summer," is supposed to be recalling his long-ago Aegean holiday, but the lyric has him singing about Paris.

"Our Last Summer" does hint at the show's theme: how middle-aged people use old pop songs to make them feel, and act, sexy. In the never-too-often-quoted Noel Coward aphorism: "Extraordinary how potent cheap music is." I don't think the ABBA music is cheap, but it's plenty potent. And 22 songs of it, gamely presented, can eventually wear down the resistance of one or two stodgy Broadway purists. The critic in me says it's an ABBA-ration. The fan in me says, I had an ABBA-solutely fab time.

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