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Exclusive: Cheers and tears as Mamma Mia! ends its six-year Vegas run

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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

After performing more than 2,200 shows to 2 million ticket buyers, the ABBA-based musical Mamma Mia! ends its nearly six-year run at Mandalay Bay tonight, and in the audience will be a couple who have seen the show here an amazing 73 times!

It was back on Feb. 13, 2003, that the show with the unforgettable musical score of ABBA hits first premiered in Las Vegas. This past summer, Mamma Mia! even became a feature film hit with Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan, and the DVD has become a top seller in worldwide sales. To this day, Mamma Mia! has grossed more than $2 billion at the worldwide box office and been seen by more than 32 million people around the world, with more productions playing globally than any other current Broadway musical.

The final performance for the Vegas cast starts at 6:30 this evening, and we’ll be there to witness the closing and then join the 30-strong cast after-party celebration! We’ll have the full photo report of the festivities tomorrow. Walt Disney’s hit and award-winning musical The Lion King takes over and opens in April after a theater redesign is completed.

Hours before the curtain went up on the last show, I talked with lead actress Carol Linnea Johnson, who with Vicki Van Tassel and Robin Baxter, has been with the show the past three years in the starring roles. Carol is the only member of the cast to be staying on as a Vegas resident.

Leach Blog Photo

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

Here’s our exclusive conversation:

Robin Leach: How do you celebrate cheers and tears at the same time? It must be a mixture of real sadness, yet joy reaching a finishing line?

Carol Linnea Johnson: I think you honor all the hard work that got you there and accept the fact that Monday morning, we will have a rough day. I know that the only moment you are guaranteed is the one you are in right now. I try to live in that moment as much as I can whether you are sad or happy. Hopefully, the work has gotten us to a place where we can celebrate. Yes, it’s safe to say there will be some tears, but also a lot of joy and satisfaction.

I think when a show has run as long as this one has and especially when it means something to so many people. In a sense, we also need a break to recharge and grow again and move onward. We are happy we have meant so much to so many people. We have so many repeat attendees of the show; I ask them why they keep coming. We have honestly become friends with many of them. I talked to a couple of Vegas people this week who come so often, it was their 72nd show.

They are Ray and Nancy Sommer, and the cast has invited them to our farewell party because they have become so close. They said no matter what kind of day they have had -- even if it’s the worst day in the world -- they know they can come to the show and it will lift them up and they will feel better. At first they came because they loved the music and the songs. They fell in love with the characters and the performers. They became experts on the show. They are the nicest people in the world, and they come just to appreciate it one more time. They love the differences at each performance they see, and they even know when something goes wrong! It’s not at all weird. and we all agreed to invite them to our closing party.

RL: What stands out for you over the three years you have been with the show?

CLJ: The 10 p.m. show is always a very difficult show -- incredibly difficult. You come off the high of the early show and then you have to re-psych yourself back up. It is so late. The audience comes in high. They have gone to dinner and had a few drinks. It’s exciting, but by 11:30, that glow has worn off.

The thing that was the best about the 10 p.m. show is that someone, usually me, would try to make it special, different and more fun like with facial mole night. Everyone would take a brown eyeliner pencil and put a mole on the entire cast just for fun. One night it was kick-your-heels-up night. Everybody had to do it. Because you have crazy people in the show like Robin Baxter, she looked like she had a leg issue by the time the show was over because she did it so much.

RL: What do you think the recipe for success was for Mamma Mia!? If you told somebody take a foreign pop group, here are their 17 songs, now write a two-hour romantic play around them, you’d be taken you off to the funny farm.

Leach Blog Photo

Carol Linnea Johnson.

CLJ: I think ABBA has a perfect balance of good music, and Mamma Mia! has a great story. So it proved a perfect combination. The group wasn’t obscure for America, so if you pull anyone off the street and said name one ABBA song, they probably could, at least “Dancing Queen.” The music is familiar in a positive way. It brings back special memories -- a wedding, a bar mitzvah. Then you recognize Judy Kramer, producer, and Catherine Johnson, author, were brilliant with the story line. They thought it should be about women and a wedding.

Women are the ones who want to go to the theater and buy the tickets, so make it a story about women in their 40s. Make it about friendship and a daughter. This story line is so classic, it can apply to any person and situation. They gave it a hook to people’s emotional life, and that is what we try to do as artists.

RL: Today, if you told a musical story of a woman having an affair with three different men and didn’t know who the baby’s father was, no one would bat an eyelash, but back then it was not the norm. Did anybody ever think that having that as the plot line was running a risk?

CLJ: You pose a dangerous question. I think that because you have the backdrop of the ’60s, early ’70s, it was a time and place that people go, “Uh, OK.” Audiences have a vague idea of what the timeframe was. It has always been interesting to see the audience’s response. The reality is that she was disowned by her mother and ends up having to live abroad.

RL: You play that role of the mother having the affair. Did you think it was important that it was somebody with your likeable personality playing the role so the audience got past the storyline?

CLJ: The thing that I have always loved is that the Donnas have been every flavor and every age. I tend to be on the young spectrum. I think the producers always go for quality. You have to want to root for Donna. We are all quite different. They’ve had older Donnas: They chose Meryl Streep for the movie. You want to see the vulnerability, whether softer or tougher. The original Donna on Broadway was a hard shell, chewy center who fought for everything. When you saw the vulnerability, it really meant something.

Leach Blog Photo

The cast of Mamma Mia! on its fifth anniversary.

You have me who is strong, but the vulnerability is on the surface, and they can respond to people who strike that balance -- fight for their place and fight for their kid. At a certain point, we all look at our lives and the choices that we have made and go, “How did I get here?” and “Is this all that I wanted?” Donna is presented with that and gets a second wind. I think that is so rewarding for an audience. They like her so much -- getting something she’d never get. They see her getting something, a second chance.

RL: What is the sense of theatrical family? You walked into an already built theater family and had to make it a new family all over again?

CLJ: When I came in, the producers changed all of the principals. Because Mamma Mia! is an interesting company to work for, I would say nine times out of 10 the big motivating factor for them hiring someone is how likable the person is. Honestly, in these three years, I have worked with some of the kindest, most fun, wonderful, generous and hilarious people in my whole career. They put really good people together in a family. The last 10 minutes of the show is so exuberant, it’s impossible not to be a family as a show.

It’s so easy to stay in love with the show. You leave so high, and you leave seeing how you have affected an audience. That goes a long way in terms of keeping a company together. The ensemble was so open to us when we came in three years ago and all the changes that happened since. We have all new dads; we have had three Sophies, so many different Harrys. Every time someone new comes in and because Mamma Mia! doesn’t want you to be a cookie cutter of the original version, it is someone slightly different. It always has a new perspective. I think that is awesome. It stays fresh, but we always become an instant family group again each time.

RL: Will the three of you leads and Sophie do anything special before curtain up to make the last show the very best of the run?

CLJ: It’ll be interesting to see what falls out. There is no advance plan at this very moment. It is a blessing and a curse having the closing coincide with Christmas and New Year’s. It is such a busy time, I think in a funny way it has allowed a lot of us to live in denial. It was there, so we wouldn’t think of it. Now we’re waking up to reality. It will be interesting. I always say what happens naturally is always the best. If you plan it too much, you are always disappointed. Mamma Mia! has never disappointed me with the magic that can happen without any planning, so I am sure some nonsense will ensue. All of us will wind up doing something tonight to remember it by forever.

RL: Is bittersweet the right word to use for all of this?

CLJ: I think that is a great word. I also think that for those of us that have been in the business for a while, what a luxury to have had this much time to invest in a role, to build relationships with other actors, and to be employed for this long. Sometimes it’s only two months to less than a year and even one night only, and we had three years here in Vegas and the cast before us another three years! I think all of us will walk away and be proud of the work that we have done. We always made somebody’s day better.

We have some extraordinary memories -- even extreme cases. We had a little girl that had just had cochlear implants, and one of the first things she wanted to do was to go to Mamma Mia! It became the first show she ever heard. She came back several times. I came out one time onstage, and she ran down the aisle with her arms so wide open and hugged me. I had to start deep breathing because I was crying so much. We’ve also had a guy in the audience sitting in the front row the last few shows. He is losing his sight, and he wanted to see the show as many times as he could before it closed. These are extreme cases, but it’s a show that touches so many people in so many different ways. It became more than just acting for us: It became truly meaningful.

RL: You are staying in Vegas while a lot of the company will pick up and move away? You have fallen in love with Vegas, and you’re staying with your new band. You’ll all be performing here, but will you also audition for other shows that come to the Strip?

CLJ: Yes. I am so open to my new life and career in Vegas. I have had six years to hone my craft. My life has been so blessed. I got pregnant doing the show on Broadway; I went back to work when my daughter was 3 months old. I have been blessed with balance. I had time with my daughter during the day, and then I played Donna at night. With the exception of never getting enough sleep, I lived a dream. I am very grateful. I have fallen in love with Vegas, but it is hard to get to know. It is not like New York, where you get to know your neighbors and run into all your friends. Finding that sense of community in Vegas is not easy, but once you have, it is so precious. People who have moved here are all so motivated: We’re part of a new movement out here in Vegas. I may be the only person from New York that is going to stay. A lot of people are going back to New York and L.A. but have that pioneer spirit.

I have only had one night off for so long, and I have not seen many shows on the Strip. I’m going to play catch-up with all the other shows on the Strip after three years of not being able to see any. The last time I saw Mystere was 11 years ago. I have my work cut out for the next couple of months seeing everything I missed out on.

I will let you in on one secret for tonight’s last show: We are re-choreographing the ending scene so that all four swings who are only on if somebody is sick and can’t be in the show can be onstage for the last one.

RL: So Monday you wake up, and I’m guessing it will feel something like post-partum depression?

CLJ: I’m so glad to be having this happen in Vegas in January. At least I can go out into the desert sunshine and have a good time, unlike cold and dark New York City!

RL: Good luck night, and don’t be too sad. A new life begins tomorrow!

Click back here tomorrow for our full exclusive photo feature of the last show and the cast’s farewell party.

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