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Sunnyside mom brings lessons to ‘Mamma Mia’ role

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Even more inconceivable at the time, perhaps, was that Johnson would one day understudy the role of Donna Sheridan in the smash hit "Mamma Mia;" that she would play the role more than 100 times and then get the chance to re-imagine the part after giving birth to her own new baby daughter. "Donna is such a strong, complex and independent woman who is also going through a very emotional and vulnerable time in her life," said Johnson, a resident of Sunnyside. "To also be going through an emotional and life-changing time in my life while playing the role made the experience all the more special for me."The musical "Mamma Mia" centers around the wedding of Donna's daughter Sophie, played by Sarah Kramer. Unaware of the identity of her biological father, Sophie sneaks a peak at her mother's diary and secretly invites three of Donna's former suitors to the nuptials, hoping to uncover the true father-of-the-bride. Donna is not only unexpectedly reunited with these three men, including Sam, the love of her life, but also Tanya and Rosie, the other members of Donna and the Dynamos, a girl-group the three women performed as when whey were young. This emotional roller coaster is all set to the ageless music of ABBA, the Swedish pop group that churned-out a string of platinum singles in the 1970s. Carol Linnea Johnson was only 6 years old when ABBA released its single "Mamma Mia." She was not yet committed to an acting career when she enrolled at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn. But she ultimately graduated with an acting degree from St. Olaf and a master's in fine arts from the University of Washington in Seattle. Johnson worked professionally across the country for nearly seven years before moving to New York. She played in "Bedroom Farce" at the Old Globe in San Diego; in "As Bees in Honey Drown," at the Alley Theatre in Houston; and in "Floyd Collins" at the Skylight Opera Milwaukee. She moved to New York in 1999 with her husband Don Burroughs, whom she had met at the Utah Shakespeare Festival. Her big break came 2001, when she was cast as Pam, the ex-wife of Jerry, the lead character in the first national tour of "The Full Monty." "I couldn't believe that I ended up on Broadway," said Johnson. "No matter how much you dream, there is always a little part of you that remains realistic and doubts you're going to make it."Any remaining self-doubts were erased, however, when Johnson was cast in "Mamma Mia" as a full-time member of the ensemble and an understudy for the roles of Tanya, one of the Dynamos, and later as Donna.As Donna, she sings nine songs, more than any member of the cast. In the title song, she comes to grips with her past and sings "I was cheated by you and I think you know whenÉlook at me now, will I ever learnÉI don't know howÉbut I suddenly lose control."The first time she is alone with Sam, she sings the classic ABBA lyric "so when you're near me darling can't you hear me SOS."Much of the musical's most affecting dialogue and lyrics are between Donna and Sophia. As her daughter prepares for her wedding day, Donna demonstrates the melancholy every mother feels has when her daughter has grown up and is leaving the nest: "Slipping through my fingers all the time, I try to capture every minuteÉeach time I think I'm close to knowingÉ she keeps on growingÉslipping through my fingers all the time."It wasn't until Johnson's baby daughter Linnea was born on July 8, 2004, that the actor began to fully appreciate the role of Donna. "Until that time, motherhood was definitely on the backburner," she said. "I was so incredibly busy. It didn't seem like it was ever going to happen."Johnson had played Donna dozens of times before she was pregnant and in the first five months of her pregnancy.But it was not until she returned from her nine-month maternity leave that she began to understand the implications of motherhood."The role has a depth to it that it didn't have before," she said, suggesting that her acting performance became "more layered and more textured.""You are able to understand Donna's dilemmas," she said. "Donna's dilemmas could be your dilemmas."Having Linnea has taught the hungry actress that there is more to life than a successful career."Being on Broadway is not going to fulfill all your needs, no job can," she said. Still, she hopes "Mamma Mia" will have a long run. "I can take my baby on the road," she jokes. "She can live in a drawer, like those old Vaudeville babies."Mamma Mia is playing at the Winter Garden Theatre, 1634 Broadway. For tickets, call 212-239-6200.

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