When this staggeringly successful Abba retro-tuner first opened in London, its appeal relied almost entirely on the pleasures of seeing how its imaginative creator worked the darn disco ditties into the plot. Most Brits of a certain age can sing every Abba lyric, many of which remind one of a more innocent time and a slimmer waistline. But none of this counts in Vegas, 2003, where “Mamma Mia!” has to function as a full-blown Strip musical for a crowd that has more of an itch to get back to slots than an awareness of the Abba catalogue. It’s a measure of the canny populism of the material that it works very well here — intermission and all.
Now on the Strip for an open run, the show is occupying the Mandalay Bay legit house built for a production of “Chicago.” That show, essentially the Strip’s legit debut, was a splendid production, but the piece proved to be too dark for Vegas. The relentlessly cheery “Mamma Mia!” will be a much happier match. And in a city where there’s lots of dazzling spectacle but little emotional wallop, this shamelessly emotional musical will come as a something of a relief to many. With black walls and a minimum of decor, the understated venue has a huge stage, its own lobby (sans slots) and a road-sized seating capacity without feeling too much like a barn. Still, the place does have a habit of sucking energy into the walls — but at a recent performance of the Abba tuner, there was more than enough excitement to fill the room.
The Vegas “Mamma Mia!” follows the American book, which changed the nationalities of the characters from the West End version without worrying about explaining why everyone is in Greece. No matter.
The Vegas show also has the production values of a full-blown, sit-down show rather than a tour. The climax of the show features the long jetty of Gotham and London, rather than the cut-down version of the first and second nationals. Auds are getting more for their money in Vegas.
In general, though, this is roughly the standard show, albeit with broader comedy than has been the case in previous versions and a bit more attention paid to eye candy on the stage. There was plenty of local interest in the lead, Tina Walsh, a vet Vegas entertainer. She was a fine choice, with a strong voice, decent acting chops and just the right slightly worn sense of irony.
The shtick surrounding Donna and the ingenues would probably play over the top elsewhere, but in a town where legit still has to explain itself, it works. In short, pull the slot handle; “Mamma Mia!” looks set for a lucrative play.