The director, Phyllida Lloyd, has moved on to a movie about Margaret Thatcher, but the song stylings of ABBA will surely outlast the Iron Lady. And "Mamma Mia!", the story of a girl with three potential dads on a Greek island where they have no Facebook, no iPhones and no plot-killing DNA testing, continues to tour. Under attack, as super troupers so often are on a touring circuit where the name of the game is very much gimme, gimme, gimme, at least the Equity actors who've made this show a winner-takes-it-all attraction of the last decade have not yet called SOS or met their Waterloo. "Mamma Mia!" still makes plenty of money, money, honey, and remains a union tour, Chiquitita. Voulez-vous?
It will be 13 years in April — oh, the horror of it! — since I first sat in the back of London's Prince Edward Theatre and watched this brilliantly clever confection basically define a new kind of populist musical, wherein jukebox songs from one unforgettably excessive supergroup were inserted in a wholly new plot that had nothing to do with the original artists themselves. Many have tried to copy the formula; none have succeeded. Since then, I've seen "Mamma Mia!" on Broadway (twice), in London (again), in Las Vegas (thrice) and in Chicago (far too many times to count). Although I'd stack up my ABBA album collection against anyone's, and though my youth was pockmarked by passionate dreams of Agnetha Faltskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad (I had to wake up to say the names), I've reached the point where ABBA and "Mamma Mia!" have melded in my brain. A soundtrack has become a discography. I've even almost forgotten my favorite ABBA ditty, "When I Kissed the Teacher," just because it's not in the show.
I've supported "Mamma Mia!" every time. There is a reason this show claims to have played to 50 million humans, and it's not profundity of plot. It is a brilliant idea, formidably executed and stocked with Europop treasures. As much as any other cultural artifact, it defined 1970s nostalgia, at least in the United Kingdom, from whence, like a nostalgic neo-colonialist in bell-bottoms, it conquered the world.
But on Tuesday night, for the very first time, I hit a wall. It's not that this is now a crummy tour — the current cast is made up of decent actors and I liked Sophie's three potential dads (played on Tuesday by Christian Whelan, Paul DeBoy and Brian Ray Norris) who actually seem to have some age on their tires. There's also an especially good Rosie to enjoy in Mary Callanan , who has the best voice in this cast. But the best casts of this show — and I am talking several iteration — have always had some subtle, sub-textual connection to the music of ABBA itself, which involved a very distinctive aesthetic sensibility (think IKEA) and vocal sound. That was the source of the fun. You don't hear that anymore. And thus the show has lost a lot of its wit. The two limited current leads, Chloe Tucker and Kaye Tuckerman, act with intensity, but there is a missing lightness of touch and a real lack of comic timing.
In the case of the crucial "The Winner Takes it All," there were also a few missing notes on Tuesday night. It's all adequate, and the megamix remains fun enough for newbies, but it was once excellent throughout.
It's time to either let this thing go, or overhaul it and update the script. Gags about "Four Weddings and a Funeral" don't land anymore, and yet the show also doesn't want to admit to being a period piece, even though its story is starting to creak. The other crucial thing that is now gone is the element of surprise: this show long relied on the fun of not knowing how the songs would be worked into the story. On Tuesday, everyone around knew what was coming. Time to shake things up.
When: Through Sunday
Where: Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St.
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Tickets: $18-$85 at 800-775-2000 or broawayinchicago.com