ABBA-cadabra: Mamma Mia Returns

Trying to fathom the strange magic of Swedish disco

"Mamma Mia" returns to Las Vegas in May. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

“Mamma Mia” returns to Las Vegas in May. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Waterloo, couldn’t escape if I wanted to … Waterloo, something, something, hmmm, hmmm, da-da-da …

With that, I’m back in a dilapidated blue Toyota, circa 1974, turning up the AM radio, humming/singing/screeching along—with windows closed and never, ever with a passenger. Tell anyone and I’ll deny it. Judging by the exaggerated, anti-ABBA sneering of my high-school pals back then, they’d say the same now.

Like me, they were probably dragged to Mamma Mia by an unashamed fan, fake-kvetching until they were caught humming/singing/screeching. We all cop to a guilty pleasure or two. How guilty can it be, though, when millions share the same guilt?

Time to cave: I like Mamma Mia. I like ABBA’s music (well, a lot of it), and not just because as a teen, I drooled over dancing queens who were young and sweet, only 17. (It’s creepy to say that now.) And it’s why I’ll happily go again when Mamma pulls a Vegas rarity and returns in May at the Tropicana, five and a half years after ending a six-year run at Mandalay Bay.

Few shows are such a snug-as-a-bug-in-a-rug fit for this city. “Guilty Pleasure” is the middle name(s) of this town, where people indulge impulses they’d never consider back home (or at least not discuss in detail). How much ya wanna bet there are visitors who’d see it here who’d never be caught at a tour version in their hometown?

However, given that it’s been a global hit since debuting in London in 1999, its appeal stretches way beyond those grappling with bubblegum-pop guilt. Maybe it’s that Mamma Mia conveys a sense of joy that is blissfully unironic, a blessed relief from a world so depressingly awash in snark and cynicism that sincerity reads as The New Hip. Maybe it’s because the sight of middle-aged people jiggling in rainbow spandex lets us revel in silliness that’s now overt, rather than pretending there ever was a coolness factor to ABBA. Kitschy and catchy, yes. Cool, no.

Maybe it’s that even with its sitcom-simple story—young bride-to-be wonders which of her mom’s three ex-paramours is Daddy—at least it’s a jukebox musical with a story that somehow holds up. By definition, they’re written ass-backward from traditional musicals—and it usually shows. Creating rich characters and interesting plots is nearly impossible when they must be tethered to tunes never designed to tell a continuous narrative. (Jersey Boys is a quality exception, but with the advantage of being biographical, its songs naturally in context to the Four Seasons’ career.)

Maybe—because it’s not some froufrou piece of “theater” but a lark born of pop-culture frivolity—it’s a musical even haters of musicals can love and still claim to hate them, their purity more or less intact.

Whether you’re guilt-laden or guilt-free, Mamma Mia is a tuneful trip back to the days of that rusted clunker I drove in 1974. With its return, maybe I’ll even play the soundtrack—with the windows open.

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