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Mamma Mia! It’s been quite a journey from rural Colorado to the Strip

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Vicki Van Tassel (left), distinctively costumed with Carol Linnea Johnson and Robin Baxter, in Mamma Mia! at Mandalay Bay.
Photo: Joan Marcus
Vicki Van Tassel

I grew up the youngest of seven children on a nonworking farm outside of Denver, Colorado. t was like the sitcom Green Acres on our farm. Dad would milk the cow before putting on his business suit to drive to work, and Mom decorated the farmhouse in red velvet furniture, red-flocked wallpaper and smoked-mirror tile.

With both parents working, my crazy, colorful Scottish grandfather in his room down the hall yelling at the television set and my siblings all hiding from me, I learned to create my own entertainment. Besides being thrown from our fat pony named Lightning, I watched a lot of classic movie musicals like Oklahoma,” Music Man and Valley of the Dolls. I loved all the “Fred and Ginger” movies. And who didn’t want to be Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes? I know my brother and I did!

I always new I wanted to be a performer, but was never sure what that meant. I didn’t start taking dance until I was nine years old. Not being a quick study, and also having a tendency for foot cramps, made things difficult. Every time I pointed my toe, my foot would cramp up and flex! I danced more like Jerry Lewis than Cyd Cherese.

I guess you could say I started doing comedy at age 8. My parents would plan “family” vacations. Which basically meant they took a week off from work. They stayed home and sent us kids to Church Camp. Camp IDRAHAJE was an anagram for “I’d Rather Have Jesus.” Our camp counselors were troubled teens ... nice. With a captive audience around a campfire we were to talk about being “saved.” Instead, I got up and started telling dysfunctional family stories. It brought the house down. That was the last time they sent me to church camp.

My dad got promoted to a job in Washington state, so my mom retired early and moved the three of us remaining kids that were still at home. That’s when I was introduced and fell in love with live theatre. I started out in the chorus doing shows at the local Peanut Gallery Theatre Company in Vancouver, Washington, not to be confused with Vancouver, Canada. Vancouver needed anyone, and I mean anyone, who was a girl and who could dance ... even a little ... even with foot cramps and flexed feet. Well, I was hooked. I even started doing shows across the bridge in Portland, Oregon. I played Frenchy in Grease and Val in A Chorus Line. You name it. Next stop Broadway! Well, maybe not ...

My first professional gig was doing a really bad club show in Tokyo, Japan. The club was called The New Penthouse and was in the basement. They called it “A Broadway Style Review!” I impersonated Marilyn Monroe singing, “I Want to be Loved by You” in Japanese. I even had an opportunity to do a number dressed like a Kabuki lion. When I asked my Japanese friends what they thought about the number, they said they thought Americans shouldn’t do Kabuki.

From there, I went home, packed my bags and headed for Broadway! Well, actually Ravenna, Ohio. I got my first union job doing dinner theatre in an old grocery store. It all panned out though, after Ohio I got an amazing job touring Europe as a tap dancer in the show 42nd St. I can now ask for a beer in three different languages!

Leach Blog Photo

Vicki Van Tassel, Carol Linnea Johnson and Robin Baxter celebrate Mamma Mia!'s 2 millionth guest at Mandalay Bay.

When I got back to New York, I stood in line with four hundred other girls and auditioned for Tommy Tune for Will Rogers Follies. I booked it! My first big job! One of 20 chorus showgirls! They needed understudies for one of the lead roles Zeigfeld’s Favorite. I knew I didn’t stand much of a chance being that the girl playing Z’s Fav. Z was 6 feet tall and I was the runt of the litter at 5’7”! But Tommy Tune cast me as understudy anyway! When I thanked him, he said he gave it to me because I was so funny. I’ll never forget it! Interesting enough, the 6-foot-tall Zeigfeld’s Favorite I understudied was Leigh Zimmerman. She played Ula in The Producers here in Las Vegas last year.

While doing Will Rogers Follies across the country we did separate benefits variety shows for Broadway Cares Equity Fights Aids. Our dance captain who organized them asked me to Emcee. I told him I knew he thought I was funny, but if I had to be, I didn’t know if I could be ... if you know what I mean. Well, I found a new passion: stand-up comedy. After Will Rogers Follies I went back to New York. At that time, my brother (a hairdresser/actor) was cutting his friend’s hair. That friend was Daryl Hammond, who is now on Saturday Night Live. My brother offered Daryl a free haircut if he would show me the ropes of stand-up. And he did. I trailed him from the Village comedy clubs to Caroline's Comedy Club on Broadway. Next thing you know I was doing stand-up at Caroline's. My highest highs and lowest lows. When you bomb ... you bomb aloneBut when you kill, it’s all you and there is no better high! While doing comedy I got an agent, and was soon doing commercials for companies like Black & Decker and Sony, with rock stars like Steven Tyler. Soon after, I was doing straight plays. Then I was called to audition for Mamma Mia! and my life changed.

I was up for several different jobs, Martin Short’s Broadway Show, a play on Broadway, a TV pilot and Mamma Mia! in Las Vegas. As you can imagine, Mamma Mia! was not the first job on my mind ... all I could think was, “Abba?” “A Musical?” “Really?” “Isn’t that the group my sister used to listen to?” Every job fell by the way side but this one ... fate.

With mixed feelings I packed my bags and headed for Vegas. Yes! Abba! Really! And now I’m doing comedy every single night with two of the best comediennes I’ve ever worked with, Robin Baxter and Carol Linnea Johnson. And I’m not just blowing smoke either. They make me a better comedienne. I was only signed to do 6 months and now I’ve been here 2 1/2 years! The time has flown by because I get to play every night with great people. I think if you can do any show for that long, keep it fresh and still love it, it not only speaks for the show but who you are doing it with. I’ve learned so much from all the principals. People like Bob DuSold who are true vets from Broadway and keep you laughing and learning every night. I play the role of Tanya, Donna’s best (upscale Louis Vuitton type) friend. I get the best number in the show as far as I’m concerned! I get to have a bunch of amazing boys dance around me and I get to push them around! It’s a blast! The cast is great and so talented. While the songs are sung on stage by the principals, the chorus is working hard singing in vocal booths backstage. And when they are not dancing and singing on stage and off, they are busy doing quick clothing changes off stage.

The show couldn’t go on without the amazing crew and stage management as well. They make sure we don’t get hit by or fly off of any moving scenery. The prop department makes sure I have all my props when I’m running on at the last minute or fixing something if I break it. I sound a little high maintenance, don’t I?

The wardrobe department is always there to repair my costumes. I can be really hard on them. My jewelry flies into the audience. One time I sat down in my spandex outfit and the zipper in the back popped all the way down my back. The wardrobe crew was there on the spot safety pinning me from top to bottom, right before my entrance. Every time I go to sit down after that everyone screams out “VICKI!... NO!”

And let’s just talk about that sound department. Even after I accidentally dropped my body mic in the toilet… a couple times... they are still patient with me, and they make me sound great.

Without the crew we would be silent in the dark and naked. We’d also have bad hair! Couldn’t do it without them!

Our band is, bar none, one of the best bands anywhere! The great thing about Vegas is we get some of the greatest musicians. They also do other gigs with Queen, Blue Oyster Cult, Sante Fe and Hot Club Las Vegas. And some times they just go jam at the Dive Bar.

The cast and musical directors of the Vegas Broadway scene get to shine at something different as well. There is an evening at Liberace Museum called the “Songwriter’s Showcase”. A few musical directors started an evening where new writers and singers can perform their music. It’s open to everyone and even veterans like Clint Holmes humbly try out new songs. That’s where we can catch up with our theatre friends. We can also catch up with them when we are kicking their butts at softball.

I have to admit my first impression of Vegas was a little mixed. A lot of people come to Vegas to be who they’re not… or maybe who they really are? They come to party hard. The kindergarten teachers dressed in super tight, super high skirts and super low tops...throwing-up out the window of a cab, and the bride who walks down the casino in her wedding dress, veil, and flip-flops. She has a cigarette in one hand and an empty drink cup in the other. Guys who look at you like you are a steak, medium rare. But then again, where else can you go to do that? Well, guys can do that anywhere! But where else can you go to be who you want to be and just cut loose? Vegas is one big party and that’s why “Mamma Mia” does so well here. It’s one big party!

Off the strip is a different story. The locals can be as tough as the summers! But once they get to know and trust you, they are friends for life. They will even put a note on your car saying “Check your license plate sweetie, looks like a bolt came out”. The locals are used to people coming and going, so I think they wait to see if you are going to stick around awhile. They seem to be just as big of fans of “Mamma Mia” as the tourists. They come again and again and let you know what they think of your performance. I like them! Speaking of the summers though. Have you noticed there is no road kill in Las Vegas? Animals are like...”No way! I’m not going out there! It’s too damn hot!”

I’m not a gambler, but my vice is SHOPPING! I hate to be a cliché but Vegas has the best shopping…Fashion Show Mall, Town Square, Forum Shops at Caesars. Show me Harry Winston! Tell me all about it!!! Where as a normal day for a performer would be a vocal lesson, dance or yoga class and then to the show, for me, it’s a Starbucks latte and off to Fashion Show Mall.

However, in all seriousness, the show is on a raked stage and can wreak havoc on your body so we do have to take Pilates to keep our core strong and prevent injury.

Enough about work! The food in Vegas is OUT OF THIS WORLD. Who would have thought you could get such awesome sushi in a city that is landlocked? Landlocked by desert!

I love seeing our friends’ Broadway shows. But I also love seeing shows like the Schintas that are classic Vegas. I love getting to see great comedians like Ron White and Kathy Griffin. And seeing Pink on the Beach at Mandalay Bay!

For me and my future, well, I’m working on my own comedy show. I’d love to do it in Vegas. This is where it’s at!

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