A Pretty Sensational Mame Blows the Bugle at the 5th Avenue Theatre
Also see David's review of By the Waters of Babylon
Broadway veteran Dee Hoty (a survivor of the ill-fated and Quaid-sabotaged Lonestar Love at the 5th last fall) makes a fine Mame Dennis. Hoty has a strong brassy belt and a warm head voice to do justice to all the marvelous songs given her, from "It's Today" to "That's How Young I Feel." In the musical, Mame is not the zany madcap of the Rosalind Russell version, as the Herman songs, especially "My Best Girl (My Best Beau)" and "If He Walked Into My Life Today," endow her with a depth that was absent in the non-musical version. Hoty's Mame is lovable, larger than life and a formidable force to reckon with for anyone who gets in her way as she raises her little love, orphaned nephew Patrick. The romance, if you will, between Patrick and Mame is crucial to the success of the story and Nick Robinson's young Patrick connects engagingly with Hoty, especially in their "My Best Girl (My Best Beau)" duet. Robinson has an impressive voice and a twinkle in his eye, and plays the moment when he sees Mame giving her heart to future husband Beauregard with an unerring sense of stiff upper lip mixed with underlying tears. Robinson's young Patrick gives way to Matt Owen's late teens/early twenties Patrick at the top of act two, and it is a credit to the strong-voiced Owen that he handles the older Patrick's rebellion against his Aunt's bohemian lifestyle and ultimate reconciliation so smoothly, keeping older Patrick from becoming unlikable. And Hoty's passionate rendition of "If He Walked Into My Life" is one which either Angela Lansbury or Eydie Gorme would surely approve.
Floating around "planet Mame" are many, many characters, as required by the episodic nature of the tale. As Mame's old, old friend, actress Vera Charles, Carol Swarbrick is beyond ideal casting, delivering a withering look or a zinger of a putdown in a manner that could best be described as Elaine Stritch with a dash of Tallulah (and heavy on the bitters!). Her "The Man in the Moon" number is a sublime send-up of a happily forgotten musical form, and the "Bosom Buddies" duet with Hoty invests the number with renewed humor, after years of too many bad revue renditions. As faithful domestic turned secretary turned vamp turned unwed mother Agnes Gooch, Kat Ramsburg heartily and humorously holds her own with veterans Hoty and Swarbrick, and her rendition of "Gooch's Song" won a strong ovation from opening nighters. Ben Gonio invests the role of Ito with droll humor and turns the trick of keeping the Asian houseboy from being the dated stereotypical character originally created.
Richard White as Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside looks the part of the genial Southern aristocrat who wins Mame's heart and hand in marriage, and he croons the title tune with his warm rich baritone, but the role is little more than an extended cameo, given the character's demise near the top of act two. Seán G. Griffin as Babcock the banker and trustee who fights Mame for control of Patrick is really rather too nice and generally aristocratic in demeanor to really work in the role. Three prime scene stealers are Karen Skrinde as the sugary sweet but ready with a sneer southern belle who'd cotton to Mame's immediate downfall Sally Cato; Taryn Darr, an absolute riot as the vacuous, vapid and dim Gloria Upson who nearly marries Patrick; and the redoubtable Laura Kenny who can take roles as tiny as Madame Branislowski and Mother Burnside and through her comedic legerdemain convince you she is one of the stars of the show. The multi-talented Timothy McCuen Piggee is thoroughly wasted in the role of Mame's man that got away, financier Lindsay Woolsey, but Michael Winters and Cheryl Massey Peters are a kick as Claude and Doris Upson, the benignly bigoted parents of Gloria.
A large choral and dance ensemble sing robustly, and lend impressive energy and skill to the big title number, choreographed by Dannul Dailey. Several of the key dancers return to frame Hoty in the charming throwaway number "That's How Young I Feel" late in act two.
All things musical in the production, from singers to the huge, rich orchestra, benefit from the skilled, confident musical direction and conducting by Broadway musical director David Holcenberg. What a gift to hear this score performed as it was originally intended, before synthesized sounds took over for big Broadway orchestras. Kudos to Ken Travis for his splendid sound design.
Walter Spangler's scenic designs, originally created for the Kennedy Center Mame revival a few years back, create the world of Mame Dennis from the many looks of her apartment to Beau's Peckerwood estate, to the Upson's Connecticut enclave vividly and with style, and Gregg Barnes' dozens of costume designs are handsome, colorful and quirky, as needed.
Whether Mame should get a full scale Broadway remount, or the long ago promised TV movie remake, Seattle audiences have the opportunity to see the grand old gal again in full regalia. If opening nighters' word of mouth is as potent as one would think, Beekman Place should have plenty of guests in the next few weeks.
Mame runs through March 2 at the 5th Avenue, Theatre, 1308 5th Avenue, downtown Seattle. For more information go on-line at www.5thavenue.org.