Lovable 'Mame' warms the heart

Quick set changes only add to the Show Palace Dinner Theatre's terrific take on a classic Broadway musical.

Published October 1, 2006

Among Broadway's great musicals, Mame is one of the sweetest, most upbeat and happy in the book. Not sugary. No, no, no. More like warm and fuzzy, with a lovable, free-thinking, big-hearted title character, an adorable kid, appealing sidekicks and "villains" who aren't really all that bad, just sort of misguided.

Do it with a cast as outstanding as the one in the Show Palace Dinner Theatre's production playing through Nov. 18 and a director like Matthew McGee, who understands that the show is more about thinking, feeling people than it is about even terrific production numbers, and you get a winner all the way around.

Before we get into that, though, a word must be said about scenic designer Tom Hansen's large, new in-the-stage-floor turntables, which allow total set changes in less than 10 seconds, furniture, people and all. This means there are only plausible breaks between scenes and, therefore, no disconcerting speed bumps in the story. What a terrific addition to storytelling.

That said, back to the show.

Mame, of course, is composer-lyricist Jerry Herman's take on the beloved book and play, Auntie Mame, the story of an open-minded Manhattan party darling who suddenly inherits her late brother's young son, Patrick, and Patrick's unusual nanny, Agnes Gooch.

Mame, played by a radiant Jan Leigh Herndon (Sheila in Broadway's A Chorus Line), introduces the sheltered young Patrick (an appealing, unself-conscious Kristopher Hamlin), into her world of urban adventure - 1920s speakeasies, understanding cops who sneak the doting aunt and underage clubber out of a paddy wagon when they're arrested at said speakeasy, dramatic tangos, wild rides on fire trucks, offbeat friends and a school where students study in the buff.

When the 1929 stock market crash wipes out Mame's bank account, she's bowed but not broken, plowing into a series of jobs that end in disaster: a hilarious stint on the stage with her egotistical actress friend Vera Charles (done, but sometimes over-done, by Susan Haldeman) and a short career as a manicurist that leads to her rescue by the good-natured Southern landowner, Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside, played with gentlemanly dignity by the tall and handsome Roy Johns.

The story is moved along to choreographer Andrea Eskin's rousing chorus numbers - the optimistic It's Today, Open a New Window and We Need a Little Christmas, and the comical The Fox Hunt, slyly cynical Bosom Buddies and strutting signature song, Mame.

In between are tender moments that establish the warm relationship between Mame and Patrick, as when Patrick bolsters Mame's sagging ego in My Best Girl and their essential bonding moment after Mame's acceptance by Beau's demanding mother (Nikki Savitt) at the conclusion of the big song.

Eventually, Patrick grows up and, to his loving aunt's disappointment, rebels by attaching himself to ultra-conservative, judgmental and stuffy friends, specifically the shallow Gloria Upson (Eskin) and her blithely closed-minded parents, played with understated but perfectly clear prejudice by Bob Wells and Barbara Wells.

Indeed, it's director McGee's decision to forgo most of the over-the-top stereotypes that gives this production a different, and more genuine feel than the usual. Butler Ito (Troy LaFon) is Asian, and he keeps the script's mangled Asian grammar, but he's a real person, not a laughable caricature. Agnes (Catherine Rogers) is provincial and inexperienced, but she's not dumb and she's not a weirdo.

Despite some opening night problems with body mikes, the show moved along so smoothly otherwise that the two hours, 40 minutes seemed all too brief.