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Broadway smash ‘Mamma Mia!’ dances into Little Rock.

MAMMA: Played by Lauren Mufson.
  • MAMMA: Played by Lauren Mufson.
Bekah Nutt was born right in the middle of Abba’s disco heyday. Now 26, she’s like a lot of second-generation Abba fans. Some, like Nutt, discovered the long-gone Abba through the “Gold” CD of the Swedish group’s greatest hits. Others are catching the Abba magic again through the Broadway hit musical “Mamma Mia!” whose tour comes to Little Rock next week. Nutt stars as Sophie, the daughter of Donna, the single “mamma” of the show. After serving as understudy for eight months, she assumed the touring role of Sophie last September. “It’s definitely been my biggest show, my biggest job so far,” Nutt said. “After Broadway, this is really it.” Fans – many of them repeat ticket buyers – and critics believe “Mamma Mia!” is “really it” also, as it’s drawn huge crowds nationwide since hitting the road in 2002. There is also a permanent “Mamma Mia!” show in Las Vegas, as well as the one on Broadway. “Mamma Mia!” was pulled together by Abba members Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, with book by Catherine Johnson, the show opens Tuesday, March 1, at Robinson Center Music Hall and runs for eight performances. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sunday. Ticket prices range from $22 to $62 through Celebrity Attractions (244-8800) or Ticketmaster (975-7575, www.ticketmaster.com, most Harvest Foods stores). “Mamma Mia!” is a funny tale of family and friendship that begins on the eve of young Sophie’s wedding on a tiny Greek island. Her quest to learn the identity of her father brings three men from her mother’s past back to the island they last visited 20 years ago. The cast of 30 is led by veteran New York stage and TV actress Lauren Mufson as Donna Sheridan, an independent single mother whose carefree past catches up with her on the island. Nutt, who grew up in Kentucky and northern Ohio, received her bachelor of arts degree in music theater from Baldwin-Wallace College. Soon, she was “pounding the pavement” in New York City, she said, and landed the first of several “Mamma Mia!” auditions in June of 2002. Finally, in December 2003, the touring show had an open ensemble spot. “I knew some of the songs,” she said. “I’m sure everyone who’s doing the show realizes that there are songs you didn’t realize you knew, some you’ve heard at the grocery store or on the radio. I had the Abba ‘Gold’ album and then I realized that newer bands had started to cover the Abba tunes.” The Sophie character sings one of Nutt’s Abba favorites, “The Name of the Game.” But it’s “The Winner Takes It All,” sung by Sophie’s mom, that is the most dramatic part of the show, Nutt said. “I always loved that song and it was my favorite Abba song even before the show. I think it’s a great song and fits well into the show.” Nutt has toured with “South Pacific,” and she has worked summer stock since college, as well as regional theater. “I’m really just interested in doing new work, new musicals that haven’t been done before,” she said. “I got the chance to do a little bit of that on the workshop level in New York with a show just starting out where they are writing things and changing things with people actually performing it. I really have enjoyed that experience and hope to do more.” With Abba’s music fueling a hot musical, and Billy Joel songs being the basis for Broadway’s “Moving Out,” the major theater producers are seeing value in shows based on popular music that’s long been out, rather than Broadway shows generating popular music. A musical based on John Lennon’s compositions is reportedly coming next to Broadway. “It used to be, in the days of Rogers and Hammerstein and older classics, that they supplied the popular music of the day, sort of the reverse of what we’re doing now,” Nutt noted. “I hope it doesn’t mean we’re not going to write new musicals again, but it’s definitely interesting that popular music is providing the songs for musicals, and I can see how it works. “But there are many shows and people might not have a knowledge of what the show is about. Now, they have that instant recognition of, ‘I know this song,’ I think that helps. Hopefully that will encourage people to go to the theater and then go back see something else that maybe they don’t know.” “Mamma Mia!” has proven to be more than an Abba tribute musical, with the songs being used to move Johnson’s story along. Andersson and Ulvaeus, half of a band that eventually sold 350 million records worldwide, learned the hard way about Broadway in their first attempt, the poorly received “Chess.” “Mamma Mia!” worked its way from a roaring debut in London in 1999 to take Broadway by storm in 2001. Interestingly, Abba’s breakthrough hit from 1974, “Waterloo,” isn’t part of the show. But the disco anthem “Dancing Queen” is. The movies “Muriel’s Wedding” and “Priscilla Queen of the Desert” both featured Abba music, but “Mamma Mia!” is the first all-Abba offering, on stage or screen.
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