“‘The Wiz’ Ain’t ’til NEXT Week” – My ‘Mamma Mia’ Experience

Take your guiltiest guilty pleasure and then multiply it by four.  Then throw in a musical smorgasbord of hits by one of the world’s most popular bands ever and you’ll approach the guilty pleasure I indulged myself in this past week.

The members of ABBA, circa 1981.
The members of ABBA, circa 1981.  From left to right: Benny, Agnetha, Björn and Anni-Frid.

The multiplier of four in this case would be Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson, and Anni-Frid Lyngstad, more commonly known as…ABBA!

Now before you go scouring Ticketmaster of Stub-Hub to see if the legendary quartet from Sweden is coming to a venue near you, they’re not.  In fact, the four members of ABBA broke up in the early 1980s and haven’t toured together since then…a fact that isn’t lost on their most die-hard followers…oh, and me.

So I went and did the next best thing to actually seeing the group perform live…I saw Mamma Mia!, the highly successful Broadway musical that has made its way to Chicago this month!

Mamma Mia! is one of the longest-running Broadway musicals in history, having just completed a 14-year run two months ago.
Mamma Mia! is one of the longest-running Broadway musicals in history, having just completed a 14-year run in NYC two months ago.

I had a day off last Wednesday and this particular Broadway stage show had been on my bucket list for the better part of the millennium, so when Broadway in Chicago put on the latest installment of this long-running feel-good musical, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity.

And the show certainly lived up to my high expectations…and then some.

I’m sure by now you know that Mamma Mia! is the Broadway stage show co-conceived by the two B’s in ABBA, male former members Benny and Björn.  It’s also the show that features almost every important hit song recorded by ABBA during their short but legendary career from 1972-82.  The long-running musical started in 1999 in Europe, made its way to Broadway in 2001 (where it just finished this year) and has since grossed over $2B in box-office sales.  A 2008 movie adaptation generated over $600M in revenue, helping to make Benny and Björn among the wealthiest musicians of all time.  This musical extravaganza is a must-see for anyone who claims to be an ABBA fan…not saying I am, of course.  In fact, as a music blogger, it was my journalistic duty to go see this iconic show.  Yeah, that’s why I was there.

How could anyone NOT love this group? They're everyone's guilty pleasure...c'mon, admit it.
How could anyone NOT love this group? They’re everyone’s guilty pleasure. C’mon, admit it, they’re yours too.

Now, before I get into the performance, which I thought was great, let me place you in the venue itself: the Cadillac Palace on Randolph St. in the heart of downtown Chicago (the Chicago Loop).  The theatre’s capacity couldn’t have been more than 2500, and it certainly wasn’t sold out as this was a matinée  performance in the middle of the week.  The audience was still of substantial size, however, and looked like one you might find at an opera, sans the formal clothing, and not at an ABBA-esque musical featuring the group’s pop-rock hits from the 1970s.  Okay, maybe I’m being a little generous on ABBA’s “rock” music classification, but where else do they fit in?

Speaking of “fitting in,” as far as the audience went, I certainly felt a little out of place, as I was one of only four or five black folks in the entire concert hall (excluding ushers).  My out-of-place self-assessment must have been shared by one such usher, an older lady, who was checking tickets at my section.  When I showed her mine, she motioned me toward my seat, then stopped me and asked to check it again with a look as if to say, “Honey, ‘The Wiz’ ain’t until NEXT week.”  She assured me she was just checking the ticket a second time to make sure I was in the right section.

"Honey, The Wiz ain't til next week!" I felt the Usher channeling sassy actress Jenifer Lewis as she checked my ticket a second time before allowing me to take my seat.
“Honey, The Wiz ain’t til NEXT week!” I felt the Usher channeling sassy actress Jenifer Lewis as she checked my ticket a second time before allowing me to take my seat.

As I sat in my chair and scanned the room, I noticed I was bringing more than just cultural diversity to the table, I also brought the average age of the audience down a notch or two, considering the mostly sixty-somethings in attendance.  And they certainly played their parts…a well behaved crowd of graybeards and their wives, some with a grandkid or two in tow, all properly seated in their chairs with hardly a peep out of them even as anticipation built for the show’s start.

With the subdued but eager (I assumed) crowd awaiting the opening bell, the stage was set for the show to begin.  And so it did, first with an excellent musical opening by the orchestra who performed an overture of some of ABBA’s well known hits to set the stage for what was about to come.  Then with the curtain rising to reveal the opening scene (a Greek island Taverna) and our lead actress playing a soon-to-be-married 20-year-old Sophie on a last-ditch quest to find out who her father is…just in time for her big wedding day.  Her dad could be any one of three men written about in her mother’s diary (which Sophie had secretly read months earlier).  All three men, who had been invited by this daughter (unbeknownst to her mother, Donna), show up at Donna’s taverna for the big wedding day, and that’s when all the fun begins.

In real life, the members of the Swedish band ABBA were two married couples, but those relationships ended, and soon afterwards, so did ABBA.
In reality, the members of the Swedish band ABBA were two married couples, but those relationships ended, and soon afterwards, so did ABBA.

Only in an ABBA-esque fantasy world like this could so much baby-daddy drama be set to music and become such a feel-good story.  On its surface, the story’s premise had all the elements of a bad daytime talk show, with a single mother who, 21 years earlier, had broken up with one man and immediately took up with two others before settling down to raise this understandably curious and inquisitive daughter on her own.  But this was no Maury Povich type of baby-daddy drama, this show was clearly all about ABBA, or more specifically, their music.  Their songs were so expertly woven into the storyline, you would have thought that Benny and Björn had this whole who’s-my-daddy plot in mind when they wrote all those fantastic tunes between 35 and 45 years ago.  Kudos to the story’s original producer, Judy Craymer, and writer Catherine Johnson for pulling that off.

Now, admittedly I haven’t been to many Broadway musicals, but if there ever was one where I fully expected the crowd to be gleefully singing along with each number, it would be this one.  After all, logic dictated that ABBA’s songs had to be familiar to just about anyone who would pay $$$ to see a show featuring them…at least that’s what I figured.  Heck, I expected these folks to be dancing in the isles, even this crowd of mostly married couples of predominantly European, and probably Scandinavian descent (like ABBA) whose average age had to be 55.

At first glance, that might appear to be a knock on the baby boomers that made up the majority of this audience.  But if you consider that these people were just coming into adulthood when ABBA was at its peak in the 1970s, it wasn’t that far-fetched to expect them to be singing in unison to the songs they grew up with as each musical number played out.

Not so here.  In fact, I was beginning to wonder if this audience even knew the songs (besides “Dancing Queen” and maybe “Take A Chance On Me,” of course).  Even I, likely the only ABBA fan in denial in the room, had to resist the urge to join in with the stage performers as they belted out tunes like “S.O.S.,” “The Name Of The Game” and “Thank You For The Music”…just to fit in with this intensely focused and stoic group of onlookers.  There was nary a head nod, even as some of ABBA’s most popular tunes – like “Knowing Me, Knowing You” and “Money, Money, Money” played out on stage.

Agnetha and Anni-Frid are shown in this still from ABBA's famous "Knowing Me, Knowing You" video. The song was one of many featured in Mamma Mia!
Agnetha and Anni-Frid are shown in this still from ABBA’s famous “Knowing Me, Knowing You” video. The song was one of many featured in Mamma Mia!

As for the familiar hit songs, they were all there.  There were the above-mentioned hits plus “Does Your Mother Know,” “I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do,” “Gimme, Gimme, Gimme,” and a rousing performance of “Voulez Vous,” among others.  “The Winner Takes It All,” ABBA’s last top-ten hit in America and the song said to have inspired the musical production, was given star-like treatment.  Even some not-so-big hits I had never heard before were included, like two from their last album, 1981’s The Visitors: “Under Attack” and “Slipping Through My Fingers,” both good songs I might add.  “Under Attack” was the backdrop for Act II’s opening scene, a well-produced dreamy dance sequence in which Sophie dreamt the three dads were fighting over her.

Perhaps the most risqué, but nonetheless enjoyable, number was “Take A Chance On Me,” in which one of the potential fathers is aggressively pursued by a friend of Donna’s – in the wedding venue – before the other guests arrive.  He ultimately gives in to her advances and what happens next is something that you actually would expect to see in a bad daytime (or nighttime) TV show.  I won’t give it away here, because there are some of you who will probably go see the show when it comes to a venue near you (or you can just look it up).  Suffice it to say that this was the scene that seemingly got the previously subdued audience much more engaged.  By the time the show’s happy-ending climax happened moments later, the audience was fully immersed and primed for the grand musical finale that came next.

And what a finale it was!

With the storyline complete and the actors done with their acting, the ensemble of about twenty-plus performers left the stage and returned moments later, fully transformed into 1970s-era regalia, with shiny multi-colored, wide-collar, bell-bottomed outfits that perfectly suited the reprised medley of ABBA hits they were about to perform for this audience.

Only now there was one major difference, the audience that had been relegated to a few obligatory applauses and some tepid laughter along the way, was now in complete party mode.  I earlier had my doubts about whether this group had even enjoyed the show as much as I did.  But all those doubts were erased as they were now standing at their seats, dancing, clapping and singing along joyfully to the crowd-pleasing encore performance of “Dancing Queen,” “Waterloo,” and “Mamma Mia.”

So I stood up and clapped and sang right along with them.  After all these were ABBA songs, and they were the one thing that bonded us all together, at least for a few hours on that Wednesday afternoon.

The Mamma Mia! performers give a curtain call before gathering for a reprisal of 3 ABBA tunes in the grand finale.
The Mamma Mia! performers give a curtain call before gathering for a reprisal of 3 ABBA tunes in the grand finale.

And with that, if you haven’t seen Mamma Mia!, I recommend you do, especially if you’re an ABBA fan.

Like me.

DJRob

As always, thanks for all the love and support!

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