Gary Raffanelli has always been around show biz, wearing many different hats—from musician and performer, to show producer, business manager, even piano company owner. But he had to put on his riverboat gambler hat when he pitched an idea for a show he had just made up on the fly.
“I was putting together show ideas in February 2002 for a meeting with entertainment executives at Harrah’s Reno,” Raffanelli told us the last time he was in Laughlin. “In that meeting, I gave them my three ‘best’ ideas that I had prepared. They said they ‘loved’ the ideas and that they would call me back later in the afternoon. At the door as I was leaving they asked, ‘have you got anything else?’ I had nothing.”
Well, not quite. He had a car and an vintage cassette.
“It so happened that I had an old ABBA tape that I was listening to on my way to the afternoon meeting,” said Raffanelli. “The light bulb came on—‘everybody loves ABBA’—so I bluffed and said I was already working on producing an ABBA tribute show. Everybody got so excited about the idea that I started working on it that day.
“I figured I would have 20 songs arranged and finished in six months—it took me two and a half years. It wasn’t as easy as it looked—either that or I way overestimated my talent. But I got it done and learned so many new technologies and ways of doing things in the process. It was a huge undertaking, but I think we’ve got the best ABBA tribute in the world—it’s certainly the biggest in the United States.”
That tribute is “Abbacadabra, The Ultimate ABBA Concert” and it played Harrah’s Laughlin at the time we talked with Rafanelli. The show returns yet again to play Harrah’s Fiesta Showroom, from Wednesday, March15-Monday, March 27.
The mountain Raffanelli climbed to put the show together can’t be underestimated. One listen to any ABBA song tells you there is a lot going on here. They used unique recording techniques to capture the vocals in multiple layers—and all those parts needed to be dissected, cataloged, arranged, and organized. This task alone took Raffanelli six months to complete. Then every musical note had to be transcribed and replayed into a computer. Raffanelli called on Fred Sampson whose knowledge in midi-computer music facilitated things.
The result was a success.
“With us, the music is Number One,” Raffanelli explained. “It’s exactly like people remember on the record, played with the same integrity. A lot of other ABBA shows poke fun at the music and the outfits. We do not. Our show is like seeing ABBA for real—only with a little more personality. The two girls were married to the two guys and they separated and divorced while touring. That plays a part in the show we do.
“We have a lot of audience interaction. We also have a massive surprise ending at every show. If people leave five minutes early, they’re going to miss the best part where we throw them a total curve.”
The “we” doing the throwing of curves and songs are Raffanelli in the role of Benny Andersson (piano); Susan Campbell (as Agnetha); Lesley Green (as Frida); Frederick Sampson/Rich Hamelin (as Bjorn); along with Haley Bond on vocals, Kent Gochnour on percussion, Kevin Tokarz (utility keyboards), Omar Martinez on percussion; and Steve Sand (on everything else such as banjo, keys, guitar, marimba, timpani, etc.)
It is the job of this talented group of entertainers to bring the entire ABBA panoply to life. And there is a lot in this “panoply.”
ABBA sold more than 375 million records worldwide from 1972 to 1982, making them the fourth best-selling popular music artists in the history of recorded music. To this day, they continue to sell between two and three million albums a year, containing such hits as “Waterloo,” “Honey, Honey,” “Mama Mia,” “SOS,” “Fernando,” “Money, Money, Money,” “Knowing You Knowing Me,” and their signature chart-buster, “Dancing Queen.”
And then the Broadway play, “Mama Mia” happened, followed by the movie.
“The movie came out after the play was already a huge hit,” explained Raffanelli. “I saw it after I started this group and it was cool to see a new twist on the music. After the release of the movie in 2008, our bookings doubled and our age demographic widened.”
Rafanelli’s “Abbacadabra…” seems to be mirroring the original group with their own growing list of achievements such as sold out shows, TV appearances and playing to large group of people. The group has also been playing a variety of cruise ships, some of the largest in the ocean.
“In the last four years, we’ve been around the world, performed on a one-hour special on AX’s TV and were the featured act on the ‘Home & Family’ show on the Hallmark Network,” Raffanelli said. “We have sold out shows nationwide with our biggest audience up to 15,000 people.”
When asked which songs get the best reaction in the show, Raffanelli was quick with his answer.
“’Dancing Queen’ is, of course, the crowd favorite,” he said. “But if you think you can leave out ‘Fernando’ or ‘Mama Mia’—or 18 of the other songs we do in the show—think again. People sometimes forget that ABBA had so many hits. Almost every night after a show someone will tell me, ‘I had no idea all those songs were ABBA tunes. I recognized every single one.’ I hear that a lot.
“The show is all the integrity and energy of the original ABBA music with fun and laughs and audience interaction.”



Harrah’s Fiesta Showroom

March 15-27 (dark Tues, March 21). 8 p.m.; doors open 7:40 p.m. (See Showtimes for tickets)