By: Tim Treanor
Mame, at the Kennedy Center
It’s easy to see who the hero is in Eric Schaeffer’s immensely likeable Mame, now playing at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater. In case we had any doubt, the hero’s profile looms over the final scene – over Mame herself, over her nephew, Patrick Dennis, wiser but no sadder from his aunt’s example, over the loveable lush Vera Charles, over everyone. It is the City of New York, whose irrepressible, fun-loving, rule-breaking hipness reigns superior in every way to the bluebloods, bigots and blackguards of Massachusetts, Connecticut and Georgia.
So understood, Schaeffer’s smart production is less a play than a celebration. The opening-night Kennedy Center audience, correctly generalizing Mame’s New Yorkness to take in all that is urban and cool, guffawed in delight at every expertly-executed bon mot and putdown, even a few which were familiar or lame. Mame is a monument to New York-style urban values. Walt Spangler’s gorgeous set, which features the City’s signature skyscrapers in high relief, makes that clear.
Mame’s story is simplicity itself. Young Patrick Dennis (the wonderful Harrison Chad; Max von Essen plays him as an adult) is left by his father’s death in the care of his nanny, Agnes Gooch (Emily Skinner). Agnes is tasked with taking him to the home of his only living relative, Aunt Mame (Christine Baranski). Mame, a bohemian apparently backed by limitless wealth (which is the best way to be a bohemian, believe me), takes to the child immediately and ushers him into her life. Unfortunately, Dwight Babcock (Michael L. Forrest), a ridiculous starched pickle of a man with some authority over young Patrick’s finances, insists that he be placed in a dreary Massachusetts boarding school.
In defiance, Mame plunges Patrick into a world full of Babcockian vice – smoking, Prohibition-era drinking, nude art models, and art itself. She enrolls Patrick in what sounds like a delightfully progressive school where Babcock finds him, plucks him out, and sends him to Massachusetts just as the depression hits. Wiped out, Mame is compelled to actually work, with disastrous results, until a Georgian gentleman (Jeff McCarthy) rides to her rescue. Mame accompanies him to Georgia, and improbably charms the clan of yahoos to whom he is related. Marriage and restoration ensue. The second Act is a series of sketches and anecdotes, not always connected, culminating with a not-entirely-convincing scene in which Patrick falls in love – briefly – with a sudsheaded Connecticut bimbo (Sarah Jane Everman) whose ultrasnobbish family urge him to reject Mame’s New York values until Mame fixes their wagons, to Patrick’s ultimate salvation
Ultimately, the book’s rather substantial holes don’t matter. This isn’t Caroline, or Change. Mame was conceived at a time when the book existed primarily as a platform for the music, and for the production values. The values of the Kennedy Center’s production are superb. Set pieces fly on and off the stage as if by magic; the immense cast’s beautiful costume collection (Gregg Barnes) could fill a Macy’s; and the choreography (Warren Carlyle) is the best I’ve seen in many years, either here or in New York.
Baranski, perhaps wisely, underplays Mame at the outset, generously permitting the audience to focus its attention on young Patrick and on Mame’s comic sidekick, Vera Charles (Harriet Harris). By playing Mame from the beginning as a human being – indomitable, but subject to doubts and longings – rather than as an icon, Baranski makes it possible for Mame to face her later challenges fully and credibly, particularly in such scenes as the one in which she sings the classic If He Walked Into My Life. Baranski has a pleasing voice, but she is not a Streisand-style Broadway crooner, and her more subdued interpretation congrues with her singing style as well with full development of the character.
There are a host of notable performances behind Baranski. Harris, who plays Felecia Tillman in TV’s Desperate Housewives, here shoehorns her voice into Vera’s raspy baritone and in all other ways captures, with amazing verisimilitude, the foggy, cynical ways and means of the chronic boozehound. McCarthy, as Mame’s Georgia beau, is a pleasure every time he takes the stage. The character is written so drably that it is distinguishable from that of cartoon character Foghorn Leghorn only by the quality of his housing. McCarthy, however, makes the man wonderfully specific and appealing. Book authors Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee had a good feel for the monstrous mother-in-law, and the two actors playing those roles – Mary Stout as a feminine version of Big Daddy and Ruth Gottschall as a Connecticut snip – derive every drop of comedy from the writing. There were other fine performances; this article is too short to list them all.
It is probably true that Emily Skinner’s transformation from repressed prude to hootchie-cootchie girl was not fully developed, but it would be unfair to let this review go by without mentioning her wonderful, operatic voice. Her harmonies were superb and her solo was very fine indeed.
At the opening night curtain, Jerry Herman, who wrote the music and lyrics forty years ago, stepped up to take a bow and get a smooch from Ms. Baranski. I have no idea what he was thinking, but if he’s like me or like anybody I know who ever tried to write something, he took a look at the wonderful set and the beautiful costumes, remembered the astonishing choreography and fine, nuanced performances, and said to himself, “Hey! I’m a helluva writer!”
Mame is now showing Tuesdays through Sundays at the Kennedy Center through July 2. All shows at 7.30 p.m.; additional matinees on Saturdays and Sundays at 1.30 p.m. All shows on the 6th, 7th, 9th and 10th are sold out. For tickets, call 202.467.4600 or write to www.kennedy-center.org.