Trying to explain the infinite popularity of the Swedish pop group ABBA to the uninitiated is like trying to assemble an Ikea bunk bed.
The parts are all right there in front of you, you know the finished product is great and found in millions of homes, but as you reach for each shiny piece of metal and plastic and try to match them to the directions, a kind of reflection (perhaps stage fog combined with flashing disco ball lights and a cascade of sequins) dazzles your eyes and your interpretive skills fail you. Don’t worry; you can always pay someone to put it together.
And the world did! That’s why the Walnut Street Theatre’s suitably effulgent, funny and very carefully assembled production of the ABBA musical “Mamma Mia!” will probably be sold out for much of its run which has been extended to July 22. This is one of at least seven productions of “Mamma Mia!” being performed somewhere on earth right now, having been staged in over 60 nations in 22 languages. Calling ABBA a “pop group” seems hopelessly inadequate to define a musical machine that’s sold over 380 million albums and singles. Combine that with the popularity of “Mamma Mia!” and critical senses are simply drowned under this Swedish tsunami.
Perhaps it would help that rare individual immune to their charm to consider ABBA’s roots in traditional Swedish folk songs and the popular, ubiquitous “Schlager” music of central Europe that ABBA’s members (Benny Andersson, Anni-Frid Lyngstad, Agnetha Faltskog and Bjorn Ulvaeus) grew up listening to. Ulvaeus and Andersson were experienced folk-rock performers and writers long before they, and their then-spouses Faltskog and Lyngstad, formed ABBA. These weren’t overnight sensations but tried-and-tested musical professionals.
Their modern interpretation of sentimental Schlager music — combined with Faltskog’s soaring voice and elaborate studio double-tracking that magnified every instrument they played to epic proportions — filled the void left when rock ‘n’ roll became arena-sized and corporate, hip-hop too closely focused, and pop mostly represented by Michael Jackson and his imitators. Thus ABBA conquered Europe and then the planet.
Even the notoriously prickly TV critic Clive James who reviewed ABBA’s breakout performance of “Waterloo” at the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest, and considered the band “incurably negligible,” later wrote that he was won over after his daughter became an ABBA super fan and he heard the “angelic” soprano high notes of Agnetha Faltskog day after day.
After the band and the couples broke up, Ulvaeus and Andersson turned to writing musicals. “Mamma Mia!” (with an amusing, if highly improbable, book by Catherine Johnson) was their third musical and was, as they say, the charm. It opened in 1999 and the slender plot about a young woman raised on a Greek island by a single mother who conspires to find out which of her mom’s old boyfriends was her biological father, was mostly a vehicle to carry those ABBA hits. Yet it’s surprising how optimistic and charming this 1990s story seems in the superheated sociopolitical climate of today.
Sophie Sheridan (Laura Giknis) is poised to marry the handsome, if slightly vapid, Sky (Schyler Conaway), but Sophie’s mom, Donna (Anne Brummel), is concerned about losing her daughter and her tiny island hotel. Donna’s old girlfriends, Tanya (Lyn Philistine) and Rosie (Charis Leos), arrive and boost her spirits as they reunite for some dance numbers they did as a group in the 1970s. The plot is thickened by the eventual arrival of the three old boyfriends, Harry (Jonas Cohen) Sam (Eric Kunze) and Bill (Christopher Sutton), who quickly find out this invitation is not from Donna but Sophie, and are caught up in nostalgia for their youth and missed opportunities with Donna.
For those who have not seen the show or the movie, don’t worry, all the hits are covered. Veteran director and choreographer Richard Stafford emphasizes the physicality of his youthful cast, and the leads and the company are clearly enjoying travelling in this time machine where, somehow, the 21st century meets 1990s nostalgia for the 1970s. Stafford has created a (mostly) fun set of dance numbers for each song.
Some of the settings for the songs work better than others, in particular when Donna, Tanya and Rosie get together to perform “Dancing Queen” and “Super Trouper,” and there’s a very funny, athletic aside on May-December romance, “Does Your Mother Know,” featuring an alluring Lyn Philistine (the Lady of the Lake in “Spamalot”) and the gymnastic Brett-Marco Glauser as Sky’s friend Pepper. Other standouts include a powerful “The Winner Takes It All” with Brummel, Sophie’s pre-wedding nightmare “Under Attack” and an emotional “Knowing Me, Knowing You” with Kunze, in fine voice, regretting long-lost chances with Donna.
Designer Gail Baldoni (appropriately enough, currently on tour with Barry Manilow) has spared no sequins, platform shoes or bodysuits in her quest for recreating a 1970s dance party, but also has established a solid, representative wardrobe for each character in speaking roles — no small feat in a cast this size.
You don’t need a scorecard to follow the action, but a familiarity with ABBA’s music can help. In the end it’s best to imitate Clive James and let your body, the memories and the music take you someplace in your heart where it is always 1982.
“Mamma Mia!” runs at Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut St., Philadelphia, through July 22. For tickets call (215) 574-3550 or (800) 982-2787, or go to www.walnutstreettheatre.org.