America has survived the revival of polyester, chastity, and the prime-time game show. Is there a chance that joy could make a comeback too? That emotion doesn’t exactly sum up the current mood, yet joy — that is, joy with a chewy center of heartbreak — defines the music of ABBA, and it’s that blissed-out force that powers Mamma Mia!, the irresistible pop opera starring 22 ABBA songs that could well be the single most ecstatic musical to open on Broadway since A Chorus Line.
A smash hit in London for the last two years, with blockbuster productions currently playing in Toronto, Boston, and Melbourne, Mamma Mia! has already racked up advance New York ticket sales of $27 million, which suggests that there may be more devoted ABBA fans out there than anyone knew. The time has come to fess up. ABBA, the spangly Swedish quartet that released its first hit single (”Waterloo”) in 1974, made music delectable enough to be called sublime. They were synthesizer-candy romantics — Burt Bacharach channeled through Giorgio Moroder. They sounded like a chorus of moonstruck angels singing in a disco cathedral in the clouds. People tend to react to sentimental pop more personally than they like to admit, and anyone who goes to see Mamma Mia! will have that ”Eureka!” moment when one of Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus’ propulsively melodic dream arias, those delicious jingles of love and loss and sheer transcendent swoon, enters your ears, then your pleasure centers, then your heart, until you feel like the happiest dolt on the planet — and also a bit like crying.
For me, the moment arrived when Sophie (Tina Maddigan), a 20-year-old ingenue who’s like a bouncier Elisabeth Shue, has a private encounter with her fiancé, Sky (Joe Machota), a beach bum who looks, quite frankly, as if he’d be just as happy getting his chest waxed. I’ve seen romantic pairings with spicier chemistry, but these two are winsome and likable enough, and as they start to sing ”Lay All Your Love on Me,” with its gorgeously severe cascades of percolating devotion, the moment tingles. The song fulfills the function it might in any musical, coloring in feelings the characters can’t express, except that in this case, the situation is generalized enough to allow it to remain our song. (The singing-and-dancing snorkelers in purple wet suits are a lot of fun too.)
That’s how all of Mamma Mia! works. When Sophie’s boogie-down feminist mom, the graying but still girlishly perky Donna (Louise Pitre), appears with her two tough-broad pals at a pre-wedding party to sing ”Super Trouper,” they’re in white disco space suits, and they perform the song, with its yearning nostalgic throb, as if standing up on that stage were the fulfillment of their lives, and the audience’s, too. What can one say about those pidgin-English lyrics? ”Tonight the Super Trouper lights are gonna find me, shining like the sun! Smiling, having fun! Feeling like a number one!” Words that naive, and that sincere, are like a rediscovery of innocence.
Make no mistake: These three blowsy ladies have been engineered to hook an audience of aging baby boomers. As musical theater, Mamma Mia! resembles nothing so much as the single most impassioned episode of Gilligan’s Island. Set in sunny Greece, the show features pretty pastel sets, a heavy flirtation with wholesome kitsch (we’re talking ”Dancing Queen” sung into a hair dryer), and a featherweight story line in which Sophie invites her mother’s trio of long-ago suitors to her wedding, all so she can learn which of the three is her father. Still, if Catherine Johnson’s libretto is lighter than helium, it’s also cannier than it looks. Mamma Mia! has been structured as a quasi-jokey, straight-to-the-heart delivery system for the mini-dramas that are ABBA’s singles. Knitted together into a wistful flip-book of devastation and desire, those songs become bigger than the sum of their hooks.
It’s hard to speak of performances in a lite operetta like this one, but David W. Keeley, as the most urgent of the suitors, has a Jim Carrey-meets-Mel Gibson charisma, and Louise Pitre performs ”The Winner Takes It All” with showstopping sadness and fire. The encore puts the audience right up there in that disco cathedral. Mamma Mia! has no pretenses, yet for anyone whose pulse has ever been quickened by an ABBA chord change, it leaves you dizzy, uplifted, enraptured. Feeling like a number one.