Mamma Mia!, the movie, opened the floodgates to not only ABBA fans of 30 years, but to a new generation of fans when it hit the big screen in 2008. People couldn’t get enough of this energetic, feel-good music, so it’s no wonder, “Abbacadabra — the Ultimate ABBA Tribute” has been gaining fans of their own from the very beginning. The music speaks for itself and when performed by a group with their attention to detail and every nuance front and center, no one ever leaves a show disappointed.
The show has been performed regularly at Harrah’s Laughlin for several years now in the Fiesta Showroom. However, this time Abbacadabra enjoys a three-week stay, giving audiences many chances to catch the show.
Lesley Green, who portrays Frida, states, “Doing one-nighters for 11 months, city after city, makes Harrah’s job for 15 straight shows a luxury. We don’t have to set up and tear down every day.”
Show producer, Gary Raffanelli, who also plays Benny, has always been around show business, 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 the Laughlin entertainer. “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 an old car with an old cassette in it.
“It so happened that I had an ABBA tape that I was listening to on my way to the afternoon meeting,” Raffanelli said. “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 18 months. It wasn’t as easy as it looked — either that or I way overestimated my talent. 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.” The show returns to play Harrah’s Fiesta Showroom, from Wednesday-Monday, March 7-26.
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. Every musical note had to be transcribed and relearned by the band members. The result was a success.
“With us, the integrity of the music is number one,” Raffanelli explained. “It’s exactly like people remember on the record. 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 lot more personality. The two girls were married to the two guys and they separated and divorced while touring. That friction plays a part in the show we do.”
Susie Campbell, who plays Agnetha, not only resembles the blonde singer visually and vocally, also had her own ABBA tribute in Canada before joining Abbacadabra.
“This show’s music is the best I’ve heard, and Gary even encouraged me to rewrite some of the bits and lines that have become the funniest and most memorable segments in the show.” Campbell said. “We have a lot of audience interaction. We also have a massive surprise ending every show. If people leave five minutes early, they’re going to miss the best part where we throw them a total curve.”
In addition to Raffanelli as Benny Andersson (piano); Campbell as Agnetha; and Green as Frida; those doing the throwing of curves and songs includes Rich Hamelin (as Bjorn); along with Haley Bond (back-up vocals); Kent Gochnour (musical director, drums); and Steve Sand on everything else (banjo, keys, guitar, horns, marimba, timpani, and glockenspiel).
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 has sold more than 400 million records worldwide 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, “Mamma Mia!” happened, followed by the movie.
“The movie came out after the play was already a huge hit,” explained Raffanelli. “I saw it in New York 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.”
Raffanelli’s Abbacadabra seems to be mirroring the original group with their own growing list of achievements such as sold out shows, TV appearances and on one occasion, a private jet. The group has also been playing a variety of cruise ships, the largest in the ocean.
“In the last four years, we’ve been around the world, performed a one-hour special on AXS TV and were the featured act on the ‘Home & Family’ show on the Hallmark Network,” Raffanelli said. “Our biggest audience was 15,000 people.”
Now with Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again coming out in July of this year, the music might just take Abbacadabra to the next level, filling their musical dance card with even more than 100 shows a year.
When asked which songs get the best reaction in the show, without hesitation, Raffanelli gave his answer.
“’Dancing Queen’ is, of course, the crowd favorite. But if you think you can leave out ‘Fernando’ or ‘Mamma Mia’— or 18 of the other songs we do in the show — think again,” he said. “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.”


The Fiesta Showroom at Harrah’s

March 7-26 (8 p.m.)

See “Showtimes” for tickets