LOS ANGELES — "Just to warn you," the guy in the seat behind me told the people sharing his row, "I may have to sing along."
I'm certain he meant the remark as a threat. The very idea of an audience member belting out "feel the beat from the tambourine" in a crowded theater might seem the grossest abuse of free speech known to man.
But the occasion was the opening night of "Mamma Mia!" — a musical based on the songs of the 1970s Swedish group ABBA. A peculiar, nostalgia-filled tribute to the looks and sounds of a different era, "Mamma Mia!'s" enjoyment factor seems tightly bound to a person's ability — if not necessarily a willingness — to carry out the sing-along threat. If you don't already know this music, you probably won't get the show.
If, however, you happen to be an ABBA fan, "Mamma Mia!" — which has opened a nearly three-month engagement at the Shubert Theatre — will leave you in spandex heaven. Playful and campy with a rickety story line serving as an excuse to break into a familiar ballad, "Mamma Mia!" is overflowing with witless charm. Audiences in London, Toronto and San Francisco — ABBA meccas all — have taken to the show like a pig to mud. There seems little reason why L.A. audiences shouldn't catch the fever as well.
Just don't pin your expectations on nonmusical elements. Despite its "girl power" aspirations, Catherine Johnson's story of mother-daughter bonding gets flimsier as the evening wears on.
The setting is a small resort on a Greek island run by Donna (played by Louise Pitre), a singer turned hotelier, who is preparing for the wedding of her 20-year-old daughter, Sophie (Tina Maddigan). If this is supposed to be a Mediterranean paradise, it looks a mite shopworn, with the central piece of Mark Thompson's scenery — a revolving bulwark-like structure — resembling a rusty remnant from the side of the Titanic.
There is trouble in paradise. A nervous Sophie has plundered her mom's diary and discovered that there are three possible candidates for the father she has never met. Without informing Donna, she invites all three men to the wedding, determined to get someone to walk her down the aisle.
Reunions, moments of self-doubt and various elements of Sophie's search all serve as occasions to dip into the ABBA archive and have characters of all ages break into song. Some of the numbers fit a given situation without straining ("Thank You for the Music," "Money, Money, Money"); with others, it's a reach. The fun here for the ABBA savvy will be identifying the songs, where they'll come and how they'll be used.
Ensemble members young and old rip into the numbers with campy gusto, while music director Rob Preuss and his nine-piece orchestra buzz the house with heavy synthesizer strains whenever possible. The opening-night audience was a mixture of the suit-and-tie-wearing over-50 crowd you'd expect to see at the theater and the younger, trendier Melrose Avenue set. It's a rare musical that can bring such disparate groups into the same theater. That's "Mamma Mia!" for you: Feel the beat from its tambourine.