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One hot “Mamma!”

Honoring an often-mocked, but ultra-entertaining, Vegas production as it says goodbye

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Vicki Van Tassel (left), distinctively costumed with Carol Linnea Johnson and Robin Baxter, in Mamma Mia! at Mandalay Bay.
Photo: Joan Marcus

There is a nasty rumor going around that as the last numbers began to swell through the Mandalay Bay Theater on Sunday at the final performance of Mamma Mia!, I pulled a handkerchief from my pocket to dab away some precipitation flowing from my eyes. I would like to inform everyone that I had spent the entire weekend laid up with a head cold, and there could be other explanations for why a hard-bitten journalist would need a Kleenex to regain his composure.

If that’s a non-denial denial, then it probably comes from the fact that I am in some sort of bizarre disbelief over the fact that this show is finit, that there will be no further chances to link up on the Strip with Donna and Sophie, Sophie’s three possible dads and a cast that somehow managed to make a decades-old catalog of ABBA songs into a meaningful soundtrack for my current, 21st-century life. I mean, here I am at 4 a.m. feeling the need to write about it when another perfectly good column for this week has already been in the can for days.

But, yes, it is true that I am a bit at bay. For some reason I don’t quite comprehend—it was still making money, damn you!—Mamma Mia! is gone, its last “Waterloo” gloriously and gratuitously belted by actors in bright spandex performing at the end, concert-style, the one song everyone needed to hear but nobody could figure out how to weave into the story.

I don’t often attend closings in Las Vegas, but then again the shows I love this much don’t tend either to last long enough to merit a closing of any emotional heft (Avenue Q, Madhattan) or to ever close (Mystère, Kà, Love). Siegfried & Roy never got a proper send-off, of course, because it went down amid tragedy and controversy; Wayne Newton leaves but always comes back; and I probably would’ve attended the finale of Céline Dion’s … A New Day if I hadn’t been out of town, but it wouldn’t have been the same.

And why not? Well, for one thing, I don’t worry about Céline Dion. She’s Céline Dion. She came, she conquered, she left in a shower of roses and plaudits and celebrity audience members, a red carpet and a new album and a world tour before her, not to mention a standing offer to resume making megabucks for Caesars and AEG Live whenever she deigns to return. The show-biz universe may have been skeptical at the onset that she could fill 4,000 seats a night for all those years, but she proved those skeptics wrong within the first few weeks and never looked back. Plus, if she needed a bump, she could always show up on Larry King Live.

No such luck for Mamma Mia!, which required constant love and attention to keep it noticed amid the cacophony of only-in-Vegas offerings that barrage visitors from the minute they book their rooms to the eons it takes to collect checked baggage at the airport. (As I write that, I wonder: Is there a deal with the resorts to move luggage slowly at McCarran to give advertisers around those carousels their money’s worth with a captive audience?) Sure, the show was always mentioned—and always shall be, given its historic success—in stories about Broadway coming to the Boulevard. And it does receive due credit for having kicked off a more successful but less often noticed trend, the modern-day respect and interest by Vegas resorts in catering to female tourists after decades of this being strictly a hetero male’s fantasyland.

Yet, if Céline departed as a head of state would, Mamma Mia! went out the way it always operated, without fuss, without anyone drawing more attention to themselves than was necessary, with one last give-it-all-ya-got performance that could’ve been any other night of the year to an audience unaware of the occasion. There certainly were tiny moments, like the knowing, emotive shrug by Marshal Kennedy Carolan, who plays Sophie’s boyfriend Sky, as he began his last verse of “I Have A Dream” to lead his non-bride off into the moonlight. Or the part where Moriah Angeline, playing Sophie, appeared to bawl a bit more than was probably typical as she fought with her would-be dad, Sam (played by Victor Wallace), who wiped her tears as a comforting father might in such a moment. And there was a modest party at the Foundation Room where past and present cast members clung to one another and pondered their futures.

Unlike Céline’s, the fate of the cast of Mamma Mia! does worry me. I’ve learned from following the career of Vegas’ original Donna, Tina Walsh, that great talent, impressive experience and intense work ethic don’t always keep stage actors employed. Walsh left the production for health and personal reasons after a year and spent three years in the wilderness before re-emerging as Madame Giry in the Venetian’s version of Phantom. And she was the best-known member of the cast when Mamma Mia! opened here, having starred in EFX for years at the MGM Grand and Jubilee! before that.

But, sure, some of this grief is personal. I forced myself from my sickbed to witness this closing and found myself instantly perked up, as I knew I would be, the minute the overture began against the wavy aqua screen that always revealed the set. Mamma Mia! is comfort food for me, a musical chicken soup that literally cleared my stuffy head and achy throat for just a little while on a chilly Sunday. And now it’s gone, and it’s unlikely I’ll ever see it onstage again, if only because I kept going back in Vegas to take visiting friends and family. If I’m elsewhere, my priority would more likely be to see something I haven’t seen before.

Mamma Mia! is the least likely piece of theater to have gotten under my skin so thoroughly. As recently as 2001, I knew so little about ABBA that I nearly mistook a tribute band playing at a ball I attended at the British embassy in Beijing for the actual band members. But that’s always been the charm of this particular piece, the widespread underestimation and overachievement of it all. It’s why I mocked the show in a Newsweek piece six years ago as having a “plot [that] is easy to ignore” and why the world is baffled that the DVD of this year’s atrocious but campy film version is outselling The Dark Knight this season.

Over the years, I caught up, different numbers hitting me differently as life occurred. “Knowing You, Knowing Me” reduced me to tears during the period after the inevitable end of my first marriage. “Slipping Through My Fingers” was ever so poignant to me on Sunday as Jamie, the boy I’ve mentored through Big Brothers Big Sisters since he was 6, ships off to Air Force boot camp in three weeks. Even the fact that my seat was broken—that the theater hadn’t been refurbished since this show took residence six years ago—reflected the miles Mamma Mia! and I had put on together in this town. (That Newsweek piece was my first on Vegas for the magazine.)

I could get all half-corny now and thank the cast for the music, but if Mamma Mia! has taught us anything, it’s that there’s honor in being full-on, super-duper corny. And so, while we’ll return next week to our snarky, cold-hearted sensibility, this week I close instead with another sure-to-induce-groans lyric clanking around in my Nyquil-addled head: “When you’re gone, how can I even try to go on? When you’re gone, though I try, how can I carry on?”

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