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How will ABBA's songs translate to Tampa's Straz Center stage in 'Mamma Mia!'? (w/videos)

Mamma Mia!,the hit Broadway musical, opens at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and runs through June 28 at the Straz Center. [Joan Marcus for the Straz Center]
Mamma Mia!,the hit Broadway musical, opens at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and runs through June 28 at the Straz Center. [Joan Marcus for the Straz Center]
Published Jun. 19, 2015

I spent several hours this week watching dozens of clips of stage performances from Mamma Mia!, the hit Broadway musical opening Tuesday at the Straz Center in Tampa. The show centers on a young woman's search to learn the identity of her father.

As many of you know by now, the quest is complicated, and comically so, by the fact that any of three men who knew the mother could fit the bill.

The plot mostly serves the music, rather than the other way around. The musical written by Catherine Johnson was created explicitly as a vehicle for the songs of the 1970s Swedish pop group ABBA. Opening on Broadway in 2001, the show turned into one of that district's longest-running musicals, set to close in September after grossing an average of $500,000 a week over 14 years, according to the New York Times.

Today ABBA's members range from age 65 (Agnetha Faltskog) to 70 (Bjorn Ulvaeus). One of the four, Anni-Frid Lyngstad, 69, better known as Frida, was actually born in Norway but grew up in Sweden. All four, including Benny Andersson,had sung separately before forming the group in 1972, with Faltskog a burgeoning star singer and composer since her teenage years.

The name ABBA comes from the first letters of their first names, and they became one of the world's top-selling groups of all time. ABBA now is regarded as a cultural phenomenon whose pop success is intertwined with that of Sweden, a country with fewer than 10 million residents.

That feel-good vibe

We will publish a review of Mamma Mia! next week. In the meantime, we thought it might be fun to see how well ABBA's songs translate to the stage. To that end, I spent those hours watching the clips from the show on YouTube. I stuck to stage productions and away from the movie starring Meryl Streep and Colin Firth. Having lived through the 1970s, I was a little surprised by the results.

I thought, for example, that my personal favorite, The Winner Takes It All, would look more stirring. (I am still not sure what the song is about, only that whatever it was, no one else was singing on an international stage about winners taking it all or losers standing small. Or maybe it was because I was going to the dog track all the time and either coming home with money or broke.)

The clips I watched of this song were solos, which don't sound nearly as good as ABBA's vocals, and not from Broadway shows. There was a woman in a green T-shirt doing Winner in a park in 2013. The event was sponsored by American Airlines, the "official airlines" of more than 30 Broadway theaters, according to the clip. She was perfectly pleasant and a little bland.

Another clip from 2014 showed Broadway's Judy McLane singing the song, this time sponsored by United Airlines.

The best version of Voulez-Vous I could find was by a Dutch cast, who did not make the lyrics sound as if they were originally Dutch but did stage the number with a ghostly disco feel and an almost transformative joy.

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The universally big and over-the-top versions of Dancing Queen almost always came off the best. Quieter numbers such as Super Trouper with its little sashays and head bobs, not so much.

An odd thing happened as I was looking for some kind of Broadway version of Knowing Me, Knowing You that might be similar to what's coming to the Straz. I was having a hard time finding just the right clip, which is part of what makes YouTube so maddeningly addictive. I had about settled on a spirited Korean version as being the best, even though there was nothing to see because the only visual supplied is the show's album cover.

Then I saw what appeared to be a Polish version. In this one, a woman with auburn hair is looking into the camera and taking it pretty intense. She is joined by a blond woman, singing in unison with her.

I'm thinking, "They sound great! They sound just like ABBA!"

Of course, it was ABBA, performing in Poland in 1976.

Bottom line, there is no predicting how this cast will perform Mamma Mia!, which the venue bills as family friendly (no children under age 4). But there is a reason this musical, like the group and its legacy, have such staying power. To catch that feel-good vibe, you'll just have to go.

Contact Andrew Meacham at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

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