Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino, Las Vegas
All good things must end, they say, and after more than 2,100 continuously sold-out performances played to over two million Las Vegas guests, in January the enduring musical phenomenon Mamma Mia! will end its record-breaking six-year engagement at Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino. It has been a groundbreaking run, setting the precedent for later and current musical theatre non-Cirque du Soleil attractions now energizing the Strip as no other full-length Broadway show had ever managed to accomplish before it.
As everyone except that perennially out-of-touch septuagenarian John McCain probably knows by now (especially since the play has no military applications whatsoever running through it to interest him), Mamma Mia! was inspired by the enduring music of the 70s rock group ABBA composed by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus. Featuring clever directorial choices by Phyllida Lloyd and spirited choreography of Anthony Van Laast, Catherine Johnson’s book, created around the already existing popular songs, tells the story of a former free-spirited rocker who’s raised a daughter as a single mom while running a cantina on a tiny Greek island. Now, on the eve of her daughter’s wedding, all three men who might be Sophie’s father mysteriously show up, secretly invited by the bride-to-be after reading her mother’s diary.
This is by no means rocket science, but rather an inventive way of celebrating ABBA’s music with a silly but sometimes coyly irreverent tale delightfully built around Andersson and Ulvaeus’ familiar old classics such as “Dancing Queen,” “The Winner Takes It All,” “Money, Money, Money,” and “Take a Chance on Me.” It is especially fun for former obviously rabid fans of the band, who squeal en masse as each number is incorporated into the admittedly flimsy plot, but I must admit, as sappy as this is and as much as I never cared for the music myself, presenting Mamma Mia! in Vegas was a stroke of genius, especially when it’s so brightly and almost aggressively conducted by the show’s musical director Bob Bray, who also doubles at the keyboards and makes sure all 1,800 patrons squashed together in the venue’s miniature Old Vegas-style seats collectively jump at least three feet in the air whenever he hits a downbeat.
Mark Thompson’s designs are perfect for a glittery huge Vegas venue, with colorful and whimsical costuming occasionally exhibiting a little well-placed skin. His striking but simple set design also doesn’t need much attention or maintenance, provided by a few quick revolves easily managed by the ever-smiling and energetic ensemble members—all of whom are obviously ecstatic to be working, even if its in a city that’s sometimes 110 degrees during the day outside their hotel rooms.
In fact, the large and youthful current Las Vegas ensemble is far better than the tired-looking Mamma Mia! touring cast which last hit LA. The dynamic voice of Victor Wallace beautifully defines his role as Sam Carmichael, Carol Linnea Johnson and Moriah Angeline are exceptional as conflicted mother and daughter Donna and Sophie Sheridan, Ron McClary is sweet and lovable as bumbling potential Australian dad Bill Austin, Vicki Van Tassel is a knockout as the socially-climbing Tanya, and Ronald Duncan is a charmer as her pintsized suitor Pepper. Still, the most memorable performance comes from Robin Baxter, offering the best Rosie from anyone I’ve seen play the role so far.
But it’s time to pack up, it seems, and give up the show’s impressively appointed space to make room for another potentially long-running production taking over there this spring: The Lion King, which will surely once again make a huge splash in Vegas, especially in this wildly African and Far East-themed hotel filled to capacity with alien-appearing oversized flora, fauna and exotic native artifacts.
What a run this one has had and, unlike other shows ready to make a weary final exit, I promise you Mamma Mia! will still be in tiptop form until after the end of the year with no letting up in sight. And here’s some fun little factoids to make the scope of this show in Vegas even more astounding: Since the show premiered at the Mandalay Bay in 2003, it has used more than 650 yards of spandex and more than 65,000 sequins to create costumes for The Dynamos, more than 4,000 light bulbs have been replaced in the unique stage since production first began, and the show’s signature title song has been sung more than 4,500 times over the lifetime of the show.
Once honored by Liz Smith as the most popular musical in the world, of course Mamma Mia! has not only been enjoyed in Vegas but by over 32 million people worldwide. With three companies currently playing in North America, it once had more productions playing globally at one time than any other current Broadway musical and, the current film version with Meryl Streep aside, currently has surpassed a gross of $2 billion in worldwide box office sales.
Commented the show’s global producer Judy Craymer: “I am so grateful to the audiences who have supported Mamma Mia! in Las Vegas over six record-breaking years and am proud that the popularity of the production has opened the doors for other musicals to play on The Strip. This has been an extraordinary year for Mamma Mia!, with the worldwide history-making success of the movie, as well as a glorious finish to a triumphant run at Mandalay Bay. We are leaving on such a high.”
Checking out Mamma Mia! in its last performances at Mandalay Bay could be considered another guilty pleasure in the place whose motto is “Everything that happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” so don’t miss seeing it there one last time as I just did, no matter how sophisticated you strive to be. I won’t tell if you won’t.