- The Magazine
- Current Issue
- Events & Shows
- Web Extras
- Yellow Pages
“Mamma Mia!” makes a lasting impression at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas.
Photo: Joan Marcus
Extended Online Version
When “Mamma Mia!” concludes its nearly six-year Las Vegas run on January 4, 2009, the breezy musical, based on the music of Abba, will have been the longest-lasting Broadway production in the city—longer than Strip heavyweights “Hairspray,” “Chicago,” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” The show will celebrate its fifth anniversary on February 13, 2008.
What’s so special about a Greek island, a wedding, and a young girl’s search for her father (who could be one of three men)? Carol Johnson, who gives a powerful performance as Donna, the mother of the bride, has several theories about “Mamma’s” popularity. “The producers are unwilling to cut the show to 90 minutes, [a shortened version] that would leave the audience feeling unfulfilled,” she says. “People don’t want the CliffsNotes, they want the whole [theatrical] journey.”
And, Abba’s music. “On some level you’ve heard that music before, and it triggers a memory.” It’s true. There is a post-show musical hangover of such Abba hits as “Waterloo,” “Money, Money, Money,” “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” and, of course, “Dancing Queen,” all played by a nine-member band.
The show’s strength also is the story, which Johnson says is somewhat Shakespearean. “There’s conflict; all eyes are on the wedding,” she says. “There is something so familiar with the experiences and relationships [the characters] have.”
Johnson understands the Bard’s flair for drama and comedy. She met her husband, Don Burroughs, while they were appearing together in the Utah Shakespeare Festival in Cedar City, located near the eastern Nevada border. Johnson describes the Utah experience as “summer camp for actors. It was heaven,” she recalls. Burroughs performs in the “Mamma” ensemble and understudies the roles of Sam and Harry, two of the prospective fathers.
The show opens with the bride-to-be, Sophie, played by Libby Winter, singing, “I Have a Dream,” just before she mails invitations to Sam, Bill, and Harry. She wants a father to walk her down the aisle, and one of the three men could be hers. The Las Vegas show is Winter’s first major production. Her voice is mature and strong, which fits the role.
Sophie had discovered the paternity problem after perusing her mother Donna’s diary. Donna herself is unsure which man fathered Sophie, and none of the men know they might have a daughter. Sophie reads the three 1979 entries to her girlfriends. “We rowed over to the island and…” Sophie explains that “dot, dot, dot” is what they called IT in the “olden days.”
At the time, Donna was into spandex, platform shoes, disco, and her “girl group,” Donna and the Dynamos. The trio is reunited during a scene in Donna’s bedroom. Donna’s back-up singers, Tanya (Vicki Van Tassel) and Rosie (Robin Baxter), try to console Donna with a comedic “Chiquitita” that leads into their signature number, “Dancing Queen.” Donna is understandably upset over the appearance of her former lovers, particularly Sam, whom she thinks betrayed her by leaving the island to get married.
The scene with Robin and Vicki means a great deal personally to Johnson. “In my long and diverse career, I’ve never had an opportunity to work with people with whom I feel such a kinship,” she says. “When you see three best friends reconnecting and dancing around the bedroom, it is just like an added bonus [for me]. I had three best friends in college and when we get together, we are crazy.”
Johnson’s toughest performance moment comes during her duet with Sam (Rob Sutton) in “The Winner Takes It All.” “It’s my ninth song of the evening,” she says, but you’d never guess it is a challenge for her. The two also turn in a powerhouse rendition of “SOS.”
“Sam is such a scene partner,” she explains. “Rob has that leading man quality; the audience is rooting for them to get together.” Sutton is familiar to Vegas audiences from his role as P. Puff Diddy Daddy in “We Will Rock You,” the Queen-based musical, which played at Paris Las Vegas from January to August 2005.
When not performing at Mandalay Bay, Johnson, her husband, and three-year-old daughter, Linnea, explore Las Vegas, hike, swim, and spend time at the library.
“Las Vegas is a hard place to get to know,” she says. “We came here with a preconceived notion that everything has to do with the Strip. You don’t know anything about the community.”
She and her husband now teach early childhood music classes for mothers and babies. Johnson also plays gigs with a jazz band, Hot Club of Las Vegas.
Johnson says she is hoping to stay with the show until it closes next fall. “But it is not always within your control; that is an actor’s life,” she says. “I’ll be there until the end of January, and if they offer me another six-month contract, we’ll see. You have to enjoy what you have when you have it.”
Johnson’s dream is to be a working actor. “I’ve been very fortunate,” she says. “You have to pursue things that are satisfying, which for me is live theater. I made a conscious decision to live in New York City as opposed to Los Angeles, which is television and movies. “Whatever happens, I will go back to New York a fulfilled person.”
Until then, as “Mamma Mia!’s” wedding scene unfolds, the three fathers resolve the paternity issue by… Sophie and her fiancé surprisingly decide… And, Donna and Sam? Well, they…