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‘Mamma’ back by special request


Judy Craymer nods toward a “Mamma Mia!” poster on the wall of the Tropicana Las Vegas VIP suite that hosted her visit last week.

The bride has been updated, she pointed out. Her hair is different.

And that shade of blue in the “Mamma Mia!” letters? It turned out to be a lucky color for the six years the hit musical ran at Mandalay Bay. So they started using that blue for Broadway and other cities, too.

One needs an eye for this kind of detail when one oversees the global brand that is “Mamma Mia!” That smiling bride has become her own version of the Nike swoosh in brand recognition.

Craymer was the producer who persuaded the men of Abba, Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, to be open-minded about a “jukebox” musical of their pop songs. Now she’s listed up there with “Harry Potter” scribe J.K. Rowling in rankings of England’s wealthiest women.

“Mamma Mia!” has run 15 years on the West End and more than 10 on Broadway. It has been seen by more than 55 million people. Now it’s coming back to Las Vegas, opening in May at the Tropicana. But only because the Tropicana asked.

“I think to be asked is a kind of honor,” Craymer says, adding, “We weren’t looking.”

But the Tropicana refurbished its vintage showroom, converting it into an auditorium that ended up sitting mostly vacant for the better part of a year.

When Tropicana entertainment executive Fred Harmon and his staff tried to think of another show that would play as well as “Mamma Mia!” they decided to pick up the phone and ask if it was available.

“Because the Tropicana asked, all our investors took that very seriously,” Craymer says. “It was a bit like dusting everyone off and saying, ‘Hey guys, we’ve got another production.’ ”

“It was painful to wait but it was worth the wait,” says Tropicana President Alex Yemenidjian. “The most successful shows in Las Vegas and on Broadway are shows that have staying power, that always stand the test of time. There are no fads.”

Devil’s advocates could argue that Las Vegas is a city that looks forward, not back. A place where people are always asking, “What’s next?” And if the answer is something they’ve already seen, they tend to look disappointed.

But what are we going to do? Hold our breath for that Australian “King Kong” musical? Or settle for the King Kong of musicals.

“I think it’s kind of earned its place,” Craymer says.

She acknowledges that Las Vegas has changed since 2009, when the musical bowed out at Mandalay Bay.

“We’re surrounded by the Bruno Marses and the new shows and the big entertainment legends,” she says. “But in a way, ‘Mamma Mia!’ is an entertainment legend. And it has earned its place here.”

Like “The Lion King,” the musical pulls in new generations of teens coming of age to see it. Craymer says mothers tell her their children’s “favorite game is to play Donna and Sophie,” the musical’s mother and daughter.

“I’ve had mothers demanding, why aren’t we selling Greek tea sets?”

The 2008 movie version sustains interest as well. The DVD released at the end of that year was one of the last megasellers to ride the tide of a format that has faded in sales each subsequent year. But when a DVD is already in a house, youngsters tend to watch it.

Craymer says she has sat in the audience and listened to showgoers ask one another, “Is this your first time?”

“You enjoy something, you want to share with somebody else,” she says. “It is kind of unusual to keep coming back to something,” she acknowledges, but “Mamma Mia!” is “two hours of pure escapism” with multigenerational characters. “People recognize themselves on the stage,” she says.

“There’s no science to the demographic, people just enjoy the show,” she adds.

Some people might ask if the Trop is trying to sell us used goods. But I wouldn’t find it wise to argue with Craymer when she says, “We’ve surpassed the cynics.”

Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0288.