LONDON — I kept turning to my friend, wanting to tell him how young and fresh the two women who put the As in Abba on the big screens in front of us looked. Agnetha Faltskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad weren’t actually in the room with us, but that’s the kind of stupor Abba Voyage dazzles you with.
Although the Swedish pop band hasn’t played London since 1979, the band’s holographic “Abbatars,” modeled after that year, are currently filling a custom-built stadium for a 90-minute concert of their greatest hits. A combination of motion-captured performance, animated sequences, and a 10-person live band make up the show, making a resounding case for music’s continued relevance.
Projected on a screen that wraps around one side of the spaceship-like auditorium, the Abbatars perform mostly as if it were an actual concert. They “enter” from under the stage, joke with the audience, ask for patience as they change costumes and return for an encore.
It would feel cheesy if it weren’t so triumphantly funny, and the Friday night crowd was certainly up for it. Largely a mix of couples in their 60s and younger gay men with disco tendencies, attendees sang each number with the intensity of a therapeutic ritual. Abba Voyage is an exercise in symbol worship that separates itself from an ordinary Abba night at the club through state-of-the-art production values.
“To be or not to be, that is no longer the question,” declares band member Benny Andersson in a pre-recorded solo speech, and questions about live performance, truth, eternity and transience mingle. in the sheer vertigo of (almost) being in the same room as one of the biggest acts in pop music history.
It’s hard to pin down the reasons why such a bizarre 21st-century effort is such a crowd-pleasing hit, but Abba’s music has its own weird alchemy. For example, “Mamma Mia” (pictured here in pink velvet jumpsuits adorned with rhinestones): Why is the hook an Italian catchphrase? Or “Fernando” (sung against a dramatic lunar eclipse): What could these four Swedes say about the Mexican revolution? And yet, something about the seriousness of those songs, reflected in the audience’s singing at the top of their lungs, has made them inescapable pop standards.
Those two songs are performed simply, the Abbatars life-size and center stage, with surrounding screens projecting close-ups for those seated on orchestra level, behind a massive dance floor. Most of the numbers are done this way, recreating a concert experience; the audience was delighted to dance and applaud every step of the way. The choreography, based on the actual movements of the band members but captured from younger stuntmen, reached its peak during “Gimme! Give to me! Give me!”, with the digital Lyngstad doing high kicks and spins that I’m not sure the real thing was capable of in its heyday.
However, a couple of songs played more like immersive music videos, with the full size of the screens used to tell fuller visual stories. The band famously sang and performed during their own breakup, and “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” a 1977 anthem reflecting the dissolution of romantic and professional relationships in the group, is performed here as a study in the style of Ingmar Bergman on missed connections. The fractured faces of its members sing through a hall of mirrors before finally embracing each other in reconciliation.
Less successful than those episodes were two fully animated issues, set to “Eagle” and “Voulez Vous,” which follow a young traveler’s journey through forests and pyramids, culminating in the discovery of giant sculptures of the heads of members of the band.
Those songs recreate the interstitial bits of a “real” concert, as well as speeches from each Abbatar about their success and prowess. The best of these interludes was when the band presented 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 sounds like a simple little song reveals itself to be an intricate web of layers of harmonies, melodies, real and digital instruments and angelic English vocals, ever so slightly outside of the band’s Scandinavian comfort zone.
It’s a mixture of magic and technical skill that decades later, after movies, musicals and greatest hits compilations, still stands at the pinnacle of pop maximalism. Hearing the final piano riffs of “Chiquitita” in a crowded stadium is an exhilarating experience, and despite its surprising premise, Abba Voyage miraculously takes flight.