'Mamma Mia!' hits 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.

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.

An impatient city

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 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 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."

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AP Photo

Tina Welsh, center, who plays Donna in the musical "Mamma Mia," rehearses in Las Vegas. The show, already a hit on New York's Broadway, opens Thursday at Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino.

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?"

Long but fast

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.

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.

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