‘Mamma Mia!’ Here they go again

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Mamma Mia

From the touring production of “Mamma Mia!” – Photo: Joan Marcus

As part of the ensemble for the North American touring company of “Mamma Mia!” for the past 18 months, Mario Matthews is well acquainted with the music of ABBA. The play revolves entirely around the Swedish pop group’s playlist, and Matthews knows all the words to all the songs that appear in the seemingly never-ending touring show.

Matthews is one of a cadre of seven gay company members who have formed a kinship in the current touring production, which begins a six-day run Jan. 4 at Milwaukee’s Marcus Center for the Performing Arts and then reappears Jan. 28-30 at Madison’s Overture Center for the Arts. Two other ensemble members, the music director, the company manager, the stage manager and the head of props are gay.

“We don’t really isolate ourselves from the others because “Mamma Mia!” is all about the family,” says Matthews, adding that the group integrates comfortably with the straight performers. “Of course, there are a lot of gays working in the arts. That’s why we have musical theater.”

The show’s plot revolves around Sophie, engaged to Sky and living on the Greek island of Calicos in a small inn run by Sophie’s mother, a former musician and child of the 1960s (and all that that implies.) Sophie wants to invite her true father to her wedding, but she discovers from reading her mother’s diary that it could have been any one of three men. She contrives to bring them all to the wedding, while her mother brings her two friends and former band mates. This all adds up to a lot of sexual intrigue, platform boots and enough glam-rock paraphernalia to populate

one of David Bowie’s nightmares.

The show’s narrative is driven by the music of ABBA, the wildly successful pop quartet whose name is an acronym of the first letters of the first names of band members Anni-Frid Lyngstad, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson and Agnetha Fältskog. At one time during its career from 1972 to 1983, ABBA was Sweden’s most successful corporation.

Ulvaeus and Andersson were involved in the original development of “Mamma Mia!,” which has grossed more than $2 billion and has been seen by more than 42 million people worldwide.

To what does the musical owe its wild and enduring success?

Matthews says the answer should be obvious.

“‘Mamma Mia!’ is just one of those feel-good musicals,” says Matthews, who has performed in numerous other Broadway shows and projects. “The story has a good heart and is something to which its audiences can easily relate.”

An Oklahoma native, Matthews is a graduate of Oklahoma City University’s musical theater program, which also counts Kristin Chenoweth among its alumni. Growing up gay in Oklahoma was not especially challenging, says Matthews, who spent his high school years at Oklahoma City University’s Performing Arts Academy and participated in the city’s vibrant arts scene and large gay community.

“Being surrounded by all those gay men made it easier for me,” says Matthews, who came out as a matter of personal choice when he was 24. “When I asked myself who I wanted to spend my life with, my heart told me it would be a man.”

Right now, Matthews’ heart belongs to “Mamma Mia!,” which offers him professional success, long hours and grueling days. When not on stage, the ensemble singers move scenery and haul props. They also provide vocal support from backstage to make sure the ABBA numbers in the show have that “radio quality” that the band’s fans have come to recognize and expect.

The company also reaches out from the proscenium to help support worthy causes. Over the past six years, the North American touring company of “Mamma Mia!” has donated $2.4 million to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, a charity dedicated to providing comfort and support for HIV/AIDS sufferers.

“We takes this very seriously,” Matthews says. “It’s a great cause of which I am very proud to be a part.”

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