'Mamma Mia!' heads to Las Vegas casino

Posted: Thursday, February 06, 2003

LAS VEGAS -- The beach is out back by the wave pool. Sports betting and a nightclub are nearby. And in a small theater past the slot machines and gaming tables, a Broadway production of ''Mamma Mia!'' is trying to lure tourists away from gambling to settle in for more than two hours of ABBA tunes.

''It was always in our minds,'' Nina Lannan, executive producer and general manager of the show in the United States said of bringing ''Mamma Mia!'' to the Mandalay Bay hotel-casino in Las Vegas. ''I thought it would be perfect for Vegas.''

Perfect in that the audience won't have to sit through a routine stage show with songs that can be a tad boring to tourists itching to get back to the tables. This is light, fun theater, a musical that inspires audiences to dance in the aisles at the end of the show.

When the idea first emerged to stage a musical to ABBA songs, skeptics predicted catastrophe. But after four years of sellout audiences around the world, the producers of ''Mamma Mia!'' figured they would try Vegas.

But audiences in this gambling capital need a lot to keep them entertained.

The most popular shows on the Strip are those with the most action: Cirque du Soleil productions where acrobats fly into the audience; Siegfried and Roy with their white tigers; and flashy productions with topless showgirls.

''Mamma Mia!'' choreographer Anthony Van Laast says Las Vegas entertainment begs to be expanded. However, musical theater has never had a long-term home in this impatient city.

Traveling Broadway shows such as ''Grease'' and ''Les Miserables'' visit casinos periodically, and the musical ''Chicago'' enjoyed a one-year run at Mandalay Bay. ''Notre Dame de Paris'' tried its luck at Paris Las Vegas, but closed after seven months in 2000. The unfamiliar title, music and the dark ending didn't play well in Las Vegas.

Mandalay Bay and ''Mamma Mia!'' producers are expecting a lot more out of a musical that includes nearly two dozen songs by the Swedish pop group ABBA.

''I hope the show's here for 10 years or more,'' said Glenn Medas, vice president of entertainment for Mandalay Resort Group, the parent company of Mandalay Bay. ''This show is definitely different than anything else that's out there. It's really not your sort of typical Las Vegas show.''

Meaning: no magic tricks, no showgirls flipping their boas.

Gamblers and locals will have to be willing to sit through more than two hours of such 1970s ABBA songs as ''Take a Chance on Me'' and ''Dancing Queen.''

''There's always a question, how's it going to be in Vegas?'' Van Laast says. ''What's a typical Vegas audience?''

Medas says the show might be long, but it plays fast. Plus, alcohol is served at the theater, and the audience can bring drinks to their seats. That's always a plus in Vegas.

When ''Mamma Mia!'' opened in New York in October 2001, it already had been a big hit in London, Toronto and on the road. Louise Pitre, star of the Canadian company, was tapped to play the lead, Donna, with Broadway veterans Judy Kaye and Karen Mason cast as her female sidekicks. The show was nominated for five 2002 Tony Awards, including the best-musical prize. It didn't win any, but that didn't stop the show from becoming one of the major box-office successes of the 2001-2002 New York theater season.

Productions are now touring the United States and playing in New York, Canada, Australia, Germany and Japan.

The story goes like this: Donna Sheridan, a one-time pop singer and single mother, isn't sure who fathered her daughter, Sophie, who is about to get married. Sophie secretly invites all three father prospects to the wedding, and things get messy.

Lannan said the appeal of ''Mamma Mia!'' is that it ''transcends generational boundaries,'' making it a good fit among the tourists with slot machine change buckets and residents starved for more culture in the neon city.

''If any show would work in Las Vegas, 'Mamma Mia!' would,'' Lannan said.

Tina Walsh, who plays Donna in the Mandalay Bay show and who lives in Las Vegas, had never even seen ''Mamma Mia!'' when she auditioned for the Las Vegas production. Walsh recently performed with Rick Springfield in ''EFX'' at the MGM Grand hotel-casino.

Other cast members won parts by auditioning in Las Vegas, New York and Los Angeles.

Sophie is played by Jill Paice, and Donna's two friends, Rosie and Tanya, are played by Jennifer Perry and Karole Foreman.

Walsh went out and bought the show's London recording and immersed herself in ABBA lore before she got the part. ''This town is geared on fun and excitement,'' she says, predicting that the show's energy will match well with the tourists who come to Vegas. ''This would be a fun show to them.''

Just like getting to restaurants or shops in a casino, the Vegas audience will have to walk past rows of slot machines and table games to reach the 1,600-seat theater. The race and sports book is next door and the House of Blues is not far away. There's even a ''beach'' and wave pool outside.

The theater, previously used for the Latin-themed ''Storm'' show, is set up just like a movie theater -- reclining seats and drink holders -- but cocktail waitresses are forbidden inside. Drinks will be sold before the show and at intermission. It is all quite unlike Broadway, where seats are stationary and any food or drink forbidden.

Other than the drinks and slot machines outside, ''Mamma Mia!'' will be just like the other versions -- same length and sets that move.

''For tourists, I think it's the perfect place,'' lead producer Judy Craymer said from London. ''It's a different territory to us, and a different territory to market.''

Mandalay Bay is advertising the show in Las Vegas and in Southern California, which accounts for the majority of tourists. But Medas says the show's popularity will advertise itself.

''Mamma Mia!'' opens in Las Vegas Feb. 13. Tickets are $65 and $85.

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On the Net:

http://www.mamma-mia.com

http://www.mandalaybay.com



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