August 6, 2008

Dozens of Performances Later, ‘Mamma Mia!’ Still Enthralls Super Fans

By John L. Smith

"Mamma Mia!" There he goes again.

And again. And again.

The jury is still out on whether Las Vegas will ever rival Broadway as a theatrical center. When it comes to staging successful plays and musicals, the Strip sports bigger busts than the swing- shift sirens at Scores.

But if Las Vegas Boulevard has yet to equal the Big Street, you wouldn't know it by chatting with Sun City, Ariz., Fire Chief Jim Sebert.

Sebert is a big fan of the Mandalay Bay's "Mamma Mia!" show. We're talking really big. He's seen the show 61 times and has purchased tickets for an upcoming performance. He's seen the show so many times he should qualify for a one-man group discount.

My first thought is, there must not be a lot of fires to put out in Sun City. Sebert admits, "We pump more oxygen than water."

My second thought is, fans this big usually see their names typed on temporary restraining orders. But Sebert assures skeptics his infatuation is all in good fun. Not only that, it appears to be contagious.

His wife, Melinda, has seen the show 55 times. And 13-year-old daughter Miranda has taken in 48 performances. Combined that's 164 tickets to "Mamma Mia!" - or about half the total sold for "Avenue Q."

"Mamma Mia!" is a warm-hearted musical based on ABBA's pop hits. By the time of its scheduled Jan. 4 closure, it will have tallied approximately 2,246 performances over a nearly six-year run. That will make "Mamma Mia!" the Cal Ripken Jr. of full-length Broadway- to-the-Boulevard transplants.

"What brings somebody to do anything 61 times?" Sebert asks, likening the experience to a kid who enjoys the same rides at Disneyland over and over again. "I don't want to say it's an addiction, but it's just something that, for our own reasons, is very special. It takes us away from what it is we do in life, and careers and in school."

The experience has stoked his love of acting, live music and the theater.

"I have no talent," Sebert says, "but I appreciate it in other people."

He's like William Shatner in that respect.

Truth is, Sebert has long been a suspected ABBA addict. The Glendale, Ariz., resident saw the Swedish group in concert in the late 1970s in Tempe, then was introduced to the "Mamma Mia!" show in Tucson.

He was fond enough of the music to inform me it was on the soundtrack to the movie "Muriel's Wedding." And he admits he kept his old ABBA records long after the world moved on to CDs.

Which, I'm guessing, is something only a man with a lot of self- esteem can admit publicly.

Fast forward to February 2003, when the Las Vegas production was about to celebrate its first anniversary. The Seberts were staying at the MGM Grand. When they looked out their window, they saw the enormous "Mamma Mia!" sign.

They took the sign as, well, a sign and bought the first of many tickets. He didn't start counting the number of shows he had attended until the total neared 50. And, I imagine, the heat from his credit card grew intense.

It's been worth every nickel, he says.

"I think it's that live environment where the music is right there, the actors are right there," Sebert says. "For us it's just something that hits the right chord. Being live from the moment the musical conductor gets his first cue ... it's a magical thing."

The repeated presence of the Seberts isn't lost on the cast and crew. They invited their super fans to the fifth-anniversary cast party and gave Miranda a backstage tour. The theater experiences have inspired the teenager to study acting.

Along the way, the Seberts have experimented with other shows.

Chief Jim is impressed with "Jersey Boys" at the Palazzo and admits he'll watch more performances once the lights dim on "Mamma Mia!"

"The sad day is coming, and I guess the biggest thing that will happen when it closes is I'll start saving some money," he says. "I won't go to Las Vegas as often, but I don't regret what we've done. There was life before 'Mamma Mia!' There will be life after it."

Lest anyone doubt his sincerity, he adds, "We do understand that all good things come to an end."

And, besides, there's always "Jersey Boys."

John L. Smith's column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at [email protected] or call (702) 383- 0295.

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