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Aussie actress still in awe of ABBA

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It's hard to say why the 1970s Swedish Europop group ABBA was so massively popular in Australia.

But that's where two 1994 movies that used ABBA on their soundtracks -- Muriel's Wedding and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert -- helped spark a revival of interest in the disbanded disco-era quartet.

A few years later, in 1999, Mamma Mia!, the stage musical based on ABBA songs, capitalized on the wave of nostalgia for the bouncy tunes written by band members Benny Andersson and Bjrn Ulvaeus -- hits like Dancing Queen, Take A Chance On Me, S.O.S. and Knowing Me, Knowing You. A feel-good stage phenomenon was born.

Now Kaye Tuckerman, an Australian, has the lead role of Donna, the mother in the North American touring production of Mamma Mia! that comes to the Centennial Concert Hall for three performances this weekend.

As a kid, the Sydney native recalls being ABBA-mad.

"Oh my God, I loved ABBA so much," Tuckerman says in her pronounced Aussie accent, by phone from New York. "I wanted to marry Benny Andersson. They were absolutely huge in Australia. I had all their albums, I had posters.... I used to sing and dance along and make up gymnastic routines."

Tuckerman hasn't managed to meet any of the ABBA foursome. If she did, "I don't think I could speak, I'm so in awe of them," she says.

The singer/actor, who won't reveal her age, left Australia 25 years ago for a gypsy performer lifestyle. After obtaining a green card to work in the United States in 2010, she had only been living in New York for seven weeks when she attended a general audition for Mamma Mia! and landed the touring role of Donna.

The character, played by Meryl Streep in the 2008 movie version, is a self-reliant single mother who owns a small hotel on a Greek island. Her daughter, Sophie, is about to get married. In hopes of discovering the identity of her father, Sophie secretly invites three of Donna's lovers from 20 years ago to the wedding.

Also invited are Donna's two best friends, Rosie and Tanya, who used to perform with her in the group Donna and the Dynamos.

Tuckerman says one reason the show has been seen by more than 50 million people and grossed more than $2 billion is that it celebrates women over 40 as passionate, sexy and funny.

"Donna is so flawed and gutsy. Often the women in musicals are the nice character, the sweet person. She's a fighter. She's made these mistakes, but she's got a pretty solid backbone. She just gets on with her life and she makes it work."

Although Tuckerman isn't a mother, she says there's a lot in the character she can relate to in terms of fending for herself.

Tuckerman has been described in reviews, and by strangers, as a Kris Jenner look-alike. Jenner is famous for being a mother -- the wealthy, attractive one of socialites Kim, Kourtney and Khloé Kardashian.

"The first time it happened, I was in Pittsburgh walking along the street, and this little biker kid rode by and yelled at me, 'Kim Kardashian's mom!' I didn't even known what it meant," Tuckerman says.

"I was with two friends from the show who just fell on the floor laughing. They pulled out their phones and pulled up a picture of Kris Jenner. She's hot and she's powerful. Sure, I'll take it!"

Tuckerman says it's great fun to wear silver platform boots and Spandex jumpsuits in the show. The dancing, she says, is mostly supposed to look improvised, rather than formally choreographed. That's to encourage the folks in the theatre seats to feel included in the festivities. During the finale, they sing and dance along.

"The whole philosophy behind Mamma Mia! is that anybody could be on that island, and that you, the audience, are also guests at this wedding, and you could be up there doing everything with us," Tuckerman says.

What does she think of the movie version, which was a bigger hit with audiences than with critics?

"What I think is fabulous is it's opened up the ABBA music to kids who were my age when I discovered ABBA," she says.

"I know people say some of the singing performances could have been improved. But Pierce Brosnan looks bloody fabulous in all those costumes. If you don't like his voice, close your ears and look. He's bloody gorgeous."

Theatre Preview

Mamma Mia!

Centennial Concert Hall

Saturday at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.; Sunday at 1 p.m.

Tickets $73.10 to $94.40 at Ticketmaster

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 27, 2012 D8

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