‘Mama Mia,’ you’ll be a ‘Dancing Queen’ at Wichita Symphony pops concert

Reno, Nev.-based tribute band Abbacadabra re-creates songs from the 1970s super-group Abba.
Reno, Nev.-based tribute band Abbacadabra re-creates songs from the 1970s super-group Abba. Courtesy photo

The Wichita Symphony’s top man, Daniel Hege, doesn’t plan to step out in spangles, spandex or a sequined cape for the upcoming pops concert that pays tribute to iconic 1970s Swedish group, Abba.

“Well, maybe if somebody gets me a pair of bell-bottoms or a jumpsuit,” jokes Hege, musical director and conductor, adding that he’ll probably just be in his “dress-down casual” of black shirt and pants to lead the orchestra behind the Reno, Nev.-based tribute band, Abbacadabra.

But he’s betting on Abba fans of all ages getting into the “Dancing Queen/Waterloo/Mamma Mia” mood for “Abbacadabra: The Ultimate Abba Tribute” at 8 p.m. Saturday in Century II Convention Hall. The group – backed by the symphony – will perform about 20 hits by Agnetha, Bjorn, Benny and Anni-Frid (“Frida”), collectively known by their first initials as Abba.

“The group was so wildly popular, but not a lot of people got to see them in person,” says Hege, who grew up singing along to the records with his brother. “I’m banking on this being a trip down memory lane for Abba fans. And for the generation older and younger, they will be exposed to some terrific pop music.”

Formed in 1972, the quartet ruled international music charts from 1974 to their disbanding in 1982, selling an estimated 500 million records. They were behind only Elvis and The Beatles in No. 1 hits in Europe, including such titles as “Super Trooper,” “Take a Chance on Me,” “The Winner Takes It All” and, of course, “Dancing Queen,” their de facto anthem.

Interest in their music was revived with the soundtracks to Aussie cult films, “Muriel’s Wedding” and “Priscilla: Queen of the Desert.” And it came to stay with the continuing popularity of the 1999 Broadway musical, “Mamma Mia,” and its 2008 movie version. Even Music Theatre Wichita is premiering its own version this summer.

Hege, who admits he wasn’t “into disco music in general,” says there was something remarkable about Abba’s sound.

“It’s more complex than what you usually think of as pop,” he says. “There is a lot of craft in their music – interesting harmonies that blend so well and an energy that’s always purposeful. It has the feel of always thrusting and surging. It’s very catchy.”

Hege describes Abba music as having “the right subtle combination of repetition and variety.”

“If there were too much repetition, it would be boring. But if there were too much variety, it wouldn’t stick with you,” Hege says. “It seeps into the listeners’ consciousness and stays. When I went through the list of songs we’ll be playing, I could hum every one from memory.”

Abbacadabra’s beginning

Bringing Abba to life on stage in full replica costumes based on archival concert photos are Gary Raffanelli (Benny), Lesley Green (Frida), Susan Campbell (Agnetha) and Rich Hamelin (Bjorn).

Raffanelli, who is also producer and director for Abbacadabra, founded the group in 2004 and has toured internationally with them since 2007. The group is based in Reno, where Raffanelli lives, and the others fly in from California and Canada when gigs are booked.

“We do an average of four or five shows a month, but this is only about the ninth time we’ve performed with a symphony. Those are very special,” says Raffanelli, a longtime keyboardist who also builds specialty touring pianos for the likes of Madonna, Maroon 5 and Carrie Underwood through his Slam Grand Piano Co.

“I’ve always been a big Abba fan. I used to drive my kids crazy by playing two of their songs over and over in the car: ‘Chiquitita’ and ‘Name of the Game,’” Raffanelli says. “I even saw them live in concert in 1979. But if you told me even 15 years ago that I’d be touring the world in an Abba tribute band, I would have laughed at you.”

To re-create the distinctive Abba sound, Raffanelli called on Sandy Selby to help dissect the vocal parts, then transcribe them and put them into a computer. Then he called on computer whiz Fred Sampson to assemble the various parts and compare them with the originals for accuracy. Then he cast the people to bring Abba to life in performance.

It was a no-brainer for Raffanelli to slip into the role of Benny Andersson, partly because he bears a striking resemblance to the group’s co-founder, songwriter and pianist, but also because they have similar musical backgrounds.

“We both started out playing the accordion. In looking at videos, I saw that we moved a lot alike. We are both very animated at the piano. He even played on one of the pianos I built,” Raffanelli says.

Music ‘has stood the test of time’

Playing the other co-founder, songwriter and guitarist, Bjorn Ulvaeus, is Rich Hamelin, a Canadian from Toronto who picked up the guitar at 6, wrote songs at 11, studied jazz in college, recorded six studio albums and opened for such acts as The Beach Boys and BJ Thomas.

Hamelin has been with Abbacadabra for about seven years, mostly as the group’s “utility musician” and subbing for Bjorn when needed. Two years ago, he got the Bjorn gig full time.

“To be truthful, I wasn’t really an Abba fan growing up. I kind of fell into this after working in other tribute bands for Supertramp and ELO,” says Hamelin, who also directed tributes to Neil Diamond, Frankie Valli and The Beach Boys.

“But I have come to have a huge amount of respect for the music. It has stood the test of time. It was actually ahead of its time. It’s a real challenge to get the sound just right. It’s a tough gig,” Hamelin says.

Lesley Green, a Coloradoan now based in Burbank, Calif., is dark-haired Frida Lyngstad, and Susan Campbell, who lives in her hometown of Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada, is blonde Agnetha Faltskog. The two joined the group about 8½ years ago.

“My perception of Frida is that she has a really fun, spunky side. She changed her hairstyle a lot. She always wanted something new – never the same. I have that side myself,” says Green, a classically trained singer with a three-octave-plus range and a musical theater resume from “Phantom” to “Camelot” to “My One and Only.”

As Frida, Green sings the lower parts of the female vocals, while Campbell as Agnetha soars with the higher notes.

“Agnetha was always the more reclusive, more reserved one. She had a more subtle air about her movements while Frida was the sparky one who would break into dance moves and spin all around,” says Campbell, a one-time concert pianist who studied at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music and toured internationally for seven years with the rock band Cool Change. She also toured the U.S. with her own Susie Campbell’s Show Band.

“But while Agnetha’s voice was pure and pretty, she could really belt out the songs. She had so much dynamics and such a high range,” Campbell says. “What I like is that the beautiful harmonies let us all have our own space to shine.”


What: Wichita Symphony Pops concert featuring Abba tribute band, Abbacadabra

Where: Century II Convention Hall

When: 8 p.m. Saturday

Tickets: Dinner table seating: $70, $60; optional catered dinner available or bring your own. Call 316-267-7658