Abba Voyage Review: No Ordinary Abba Party at the Club

LONDON — I kept turning to my friend, wanting to tell him how young and fresh the two women who put the Ace in Abba looked on the giant ...


LONDON — I kept turning to my friend, wanting to tell him how young and fresh the two women who put the Ace in Abba looked on the giant screens in front of us. Agnetha Faltskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad weren’t really in the room with us, but that’s the kind of stupor in which Abba Voyage dazzles you.

Although the Swedish pop band hasn’t played London since 1979, the band’s holographic “Abbatars”, modeled after their likeness from that year, are currently filling a custom-built arena for a 90-minute gig of their greatest successes. A combination of motion-captured performances, animated footage and a 10-person live band make up the show, making a strong case for the music’s continued relevance.

Projected onto a screen that wraps around one side of the spaceship-like auditorium, the Abbatar mostly play as if it were a real concert. They “enter” from below the stage, joke with the audience, ask for patience by changing costumes and come back for an encore.

It would be cheesy if it weren’t so triumphantly fun, and the Friday night crowd was certainly in on it. Largely a mix of couples in their 60s and disco-leaning younger gay men, the attendees sang through each number with the intensity of a therapeutic ritual. Abba Voyage is an exercise in symbol worship that sets itself apart from an ordinary Abba party at the club thanks to cutting-edge production values.

“To be or not to be – that is no longer the question,” says band member Benny Andersson in a pre-recorded solo speech, and questions about live performance, truth, eternity and transience are skimmed into the pure vertigo to (almost) be in the same room as one of the greatest bands in the history of pop music.

It’s hard to pinpoint why such a bizarre 21st-century undertaking is a crowd-pleaser, but Abba’s music has its own weird chemistry. Take “Mamma Mia” (performed here in rhinestone-embellished pink velvet jumpsuits): why is crochet an Italian slogan? Or “Fernando” (sung against a dramatic lunar eclipse): What could these four Swedes have to say about the Mexican Revolution? And yet, something about the earnestness of these songs, reflected in the audience’s full-bosom belts, made them go-to pop standards.

These two songs are performed directly, the Abbatars life-size and center stage, with surrounding screens projecting close-ups for those seated at orchestra level, behind a huge dance floor. Most numbers are done this way, recreating a concert experience; the audience was delighted to dance and applaud at every step. The choreography, based on the band member’s actual movements but captured by younger doubles, reached its climax during “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!”, with the digital Lyngstad doing kicks and twirls which I’m not sure the real one was capable of in its heyday.

A few songs, however, felt more like immersive music videos, with the actual size of the screens used to tell more in-depth visual stories. The band sang and played through its own breakup, and “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” a 1977 anthem reflecting the dissolving romantic and professional relationships in the band, is performed here as an Ingmar Bergman-esque study in the connections missed. The fractured faces of its members sing in a hall of mirrors before finally kissing in reconciliation.

Less successful than these episodes were two fully animated numbers, set to “Eagle” and “Voulez Vous”, following a young traveler’s journey through forests and pyramids, and culminating in their discovery of giant sculptures of the heads group members.

These songs recreate the interstitial bits of a “real” concert, as do each Abbatar’s speeches about their success and artistry. The best of these interludes saw the group present the footage of their Eurovision Song Contest winning performance of “Waterloo”, the song that catapulted them to fame in 1974.

Abba’s music is deceptively complex. What looks like a simple little song turns out to be a complex web of harmonies, melodies, real and digital instruments and angelic English vocals, always slightly outside the band’s Scandinavian comfort zone.

It’s a blend of magic and technical skill that, decades later, after movies, musicals and greatest hits compilations, is still at the pinnacle of pop maximalism. Hearing the closing piano riffs on “Chiquitita” in a crowded arena is an exhilarating experience, and despite its frowning premise, Abba Voyage miraculously takes flight.

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