Let’s start from the bottom line. If you spent between 230 and 499 shekels ($129) for a ticket (or several) for the “Mamma Mia!” production to feature for the next two weeks at the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center, you probably knew why.
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And you’ll get a fair return for your money: a well-oiled musical machine with the sound, lighting, actors, dancers and energy just as it was performed in the West End, on Broadway or on any stage visited by this traveling troupe of the most recycled musical in the world.
Just in case you’re out of the loop, in the beginning there was a Swedish pop group called ABBA, which reigned over European and international pop from 1975 to 1982 and to this day remains the second best-selling band ever after the Beatles.
In 1999 came producer Judy Craymer, playwright Catherine Johnson, director Phyllida Lloyd and a brilliant idea. If until then a musical was a plot for which songs were written, and those songs climbed the charts, here the thinking was the other way around.
The familiar hits guarantee popularity, because despite what people think, the audience isn’t looking for originality, it’s looking for what it knows and can sing and dance to. And these hits are threaded into a plot that guarantees a play that will also be a hit. “Mamma Mia!” was the first such recycled musical, and in Israel in 2002 we had “Mary Lou,” which did something similar with the hits of Israeli pop singer Zvika Pick.
And when you do it well, there’s no reason it shouldn’t work. The ABBA hits are woven into a plot about an Englishwoman who runs a pub on a Greek island. Her daughter, whom she raised on her own, is about to get married.
Before the big day, the daughter wants to know who her father was. She discovers in her mother’s diary three possible candidates and invites them to the wedding — without telling her mother. They come, and none of them — wonder of wonders — denies his possible paternity.
Incidentally, Israel is the only place in the world where a “Mamma Mia!” production receives a unique twist: ABBA songs and a plot revolving around who’s the abba — Hebrew for father.
It’s two and a half hours of a pleasant plot, familiar catchy songs and an ending with a wedding (not the planned one, but that makes no difference). The encore, a wedding party, can include hits for which no room was found in the plot (like “Waterloo”).
Between one rhythmic hit and the next you can ponder the fact that this is an almost totally straight musical, which makes it a thing of the past. And you can think about Greece, which in 1999 was the place you could live without worries and today is Europe’s economic disaster. But what does it matter if the winner takes it all?
“Mamma Mia!” by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus. Script: Catherine Johnson. Direction: Phyllida Lloyd. The Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center. In English with subtitles.