Musical authenticity, dramatic lighting, cute costumes and precise choreography… Bjorn Again brought alive the ABBA era to an enthusiastic city audience
“We will sing. We will dance. And we will all be happy.” To be honest, it sounds faintly terrifying. Especially when delivered in a faux-Swedish accent. Terrifying because, you know you’re powerless. Because, no matter how hard you try, when those first notes of ‘Super Trouper’ begin, you know that you will stand up obediently, like a pre-programmed Stepford wife, and sing your heart out. How embarrassing. And oddly liberating.
We are addicted to ABBA. There. I said it. You can deny it till your face is as blue as Agnetha’s eye shadow, but deep down, you know it’s true. Yes, the tunes can be banal and lyrics gauche, relying on predictability, repetition and disco-pop. Yet, this band from the 1970s not only still sells records, but they’ve also spawned a rash of tribute bands, inspired a Broadway musical and successful Hollywood movie. Retro-credibility? Not really. Besides, our love affair with all things Nordic is fairly recent, whether it’s their minimalistic design (think IKEA), innovative food (they’ve brought foraging back into fashion) or avant-garde Electronic music (Skweee). In comparison, ABBA is the musical equivalent of an old fashioned bar of milk chocolate. Almost cloyingly sweet. Cunningly crafted to stay relevant. And, an unfailingly cheerful pick-me-up.
This is exactly what Bjorn Again relies on. Defining themselves as a ‘light-hearted parody show’ the group, founded by John Tyrrell and Rod Woolley in Melbourne, has performed all over the world. Their format is predictable, relying on the strength of the songs to carry them through, backed up by a few jokes. More a tribute than a parody, the show has been designed intuitively, focusing on musical authenticity, backed by dramatic lighting, cute costumes and precise choreography. The result is an evening that is uplifting, even if it isn’t particularly invigorating.
Each of the team has a tongue-in-cheek stage name inspired by the singer they are imitating — ‘Agnetha Falstart’ (Crystal Hegedis), ‘Bjorn Volvo-us’ (Jamie Jardine), ‘Benny Anderwear’ (Ashley Reeder) and ‘Frida Longstokin’ (Helen Nikolopoulos). (The original names, in case you need a quick refresher are: Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson, and Anni-Frid Lyngstad.) Backed by musicians Thomas Scott Thornburn (bass player) and John Tyrrell (drummer), they recreate the original groups’ signature sound, with that familiar satisfying balance between the two, three and four part harmonies.
There’s plenty of earnest dancing with classic moves, now appropriated by legions of drunk Karaoke singers (who just can’t seem to get enough of ABBA either): Point, point, point, hair toss, jump, hands on hip. Repeat. Admittedly the joyful exuberance of the original group is missing. There’s a lack of spontaneity as Bjorn Again goes through the routine with the slick, mechanical, practiced air of performers who have done this a hundred times. However, the audience clearly doesn’t care. It takes just one song to get people warmed up, and by the time they’re at that notorious earworm, ‘Hasta Mañana’, everyone’s singing along. The concert features most of ABBA’s greatest hits, so it’s familiar music. ‘Honey Honey’, ‘Chiquitita’, ‘Voulez Vouz’…
Just as things are getting — dare I say it — faintly tedious, the tempo changes. The problem with ABBA, from the perspective of a contemporary audience, is the fact that they’re so blandly well-behaved. After all, we are a generation weaned on Lady Gaga’s angst, Eminem’s fury and Miley Cyrus’s Twerking. Bjorn’s skin-tight jumpsuit, embellished with knee-sequins and careful guitar flourishes seem sweetly innocent in comparison. Fortunately, Bjorn and Benny rebel for space, breaking into that classic college anthem: Bon Jovi’s ‘Living On A Prayer’, delivered with charming zeal, if not all the original raw energy of the original. Then, the girls come back on stage, and it’s back to pretty-pretty: ‘Fernando’, complete with dancing gold and silver lights from an oversized rotating disco-ball. There’s one more deviation, halfway through ‘Money, Money, Money’. Benny puts on sunglasses and a swagger for some “Everybody in the house let me hear you say…” style rap, much to the delight of the younger members of the audience.
Of course, the evening ends with ‘Dancing Queen’, followed by ‘Thank You For The Music,’ performed as an encore. Every member of the audience is on their feet by now, hands aloft and singing along. Still wondering why ABBA stays relevant? Let me put it this way: They are cherry flavoured bubble gum, picnic baskets and summer holidays in a world that’s increasingly complicated. Bjorn Again reminds you of better times, and does it well.
(The Hindu presented Bjorn Again, the ultimate ABBA experience at Sir Mutha Venkatasubba Concert Hall on Friday.)