“Mamma Mia!” at Mandalay Bay

Mamma Mia!
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.

Mamma Mia! plays through Jan. 4 at Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino, 3950 Las Vegas Bl. South, Las Vegas; for tickets, call 800.632.7400 or log on at www.mandalaybay.com or www.mamma-mia.com

TRAVIS MICHAEL HOLDER teaches acting and theatre/film history at the New York Film Academy’s west coast campus at Universal Studios. He has been writing about LA theatre since 1987, including 12 years for BackStage, a 23-year tenure as Theatre Editor for Entertainment Today, and currently for ArtsInLA.com. As an actor, he received the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Best Actor Award as Kenneth Halliwell in the west coast premiere of Nasty Little Secrets at Theatre/Theater and he has also been honored with a Drama-Logue Award as Lennie in Of Mice and Men at the Egyptian Arena, four Maddy Awards, a ReviewPlays.com Award, both NAACP and GLAAD Award nominations, and six acting nominations from LA Weekly. Regionally, he won the Inland Theatre League Award as Ken Talley in Fifth of July; three awards for his direction and performance as Dr. Dysart in Equus; was up for Washington, DC’s Helen Hayes honors as Oscar Wilde in the world premiere of Oscar & Speranza; toured as Amos “Mr. Cellophane” Hart in Chicago; and he has traveled three times to New Orleans for the annual Tennessee Williams Literary Festival, opening the fest in 2003 as Williams himself in Lament for the Moths and since returning to appear in An Ode to Tennessee and opposite Karen Kondazian as A Witch and a Bitch. Never one to suffer from typecasting, Travis’ most recent LA performance, as Rodney in The Katrina Comedy Fest, netted the cast a Best Ensemble Sage Award from ArtsInLA. He has also been seen as Wynchell in the world premiere of Moby Pomerance’s The Good Book of Pedantry and Wonder and Frank in Charles Mee’s Summertime at The Boston Court Performing Arts Center, Giuseppe “The Florist” Givola in Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui for Classical Theatre Lab, Ftatateeta in Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra at the Lillian, Cheswick in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest at the Rubicon in Ventura, Pete Dye in the world premiere of Stranger at the Bootleg (LA Weekly Award nomination), Shelly Levene in Glengarry Glen Ross at the Egyptian Arena, the Witch of Capri in Williams’ The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore at the Fountain, and Dr. Van Helsing in The House of Besarab at the Hollywood American Legion Theatre. As a writer, he has also been a frequent contributor to several national magazines and five of his plays have been produced in LA. His first, Surprise Surprise, for which he wrote the screenplay with director Jerry Turner, became a feature film with Travis playing opposite John Brotherton, Luke Eberl, Deborah Shelton and Mary Jo Catlett. His first novel, Waiting for Walk, was completed in 2005, put in a desk drawer, and the ever-slothful, ever-deluded, ever-entitled Travis can’t figure out why no one has magically found it yet and published the goddam thing. www.travismichaelholder.com