BWW Review: Stoneham Theatre's Spirited MAME Just in Time for Christmas
Book by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, Music and Lyrics by Jerry Herman, Based on the Novel by PatRick Dennis and the Play Auntie Mame by Lawrence and Lee; Original Choreography by Onna White; Original Direction by Gene Saks; Produced for the New York Stage by Fryer, Carr & Harris; Directed and Choreographed by Ilyse Robbins; Music Direction, Matthew Stern; Scenic Design, Katheryn Monthei; Costume Design, Tyler Kinney; Lighting Design, Jeff Adelberg; Sound Designer and Engineer, John Stone; Production Stage Manager, Rachel Policare; Assistant Stage Manager, Maegan Alyse Passafume
CAST (in alphabetical order): Margaret Ann Brady, Mary Callahan, Katie Anne Clark, Serge Clivio, Meryl Galaid, Sarah Kawalek, Cameron Levesque, Sarah Mass, Will McGarrahan, Sean McGuirk, John O'Neil, Brian Pereira, Izzy Richards, Matty Rickard, Robert Saoud, Rhys Scheibe, Hannah Shihdanian, Kathy St. George, Ceit Zweil; Understudy for Young PatRick Dennis/Peter Dennis, Asher Navisky
Performances through December 23 at Stoneham Theatre, 395 Main Street, Stoneham, MA; Box Office 781-279-2200 or www.stonehamtheatre.org
"Life is a banquet, and most poor sons-of-bitches are starving to death." You could do worse than to subscribe to the credo of one Mame Dennis, the eccentric, wealthy bohemian at the center of the 1966 Broadway musical Mame. With book by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee (based on the novel by PatRick Dennis and their own play Auntie Mame), and music and lyrics by Jerry Herman, Mame is a joyous celebration of living life with brio and without apologies. Fifty years after its debut at the Winter Garden Theatre in New York, the old gal can still lift an audience to its feet with its smorgasbord of classic songs, big-hearted personalities, and old-fashioned fun. To seal the deal, Stoneham Theatre has local favorite Kathy St. George in the starring role, with Mary Callanan (back in town from Broadway and national tours) as her sidekick Vera, and Cameron Levesque, the most delightful ten-year-old triple threat, as Mame's nephew Patrick.
The story is set in 1920s Manhattan where the carefree Mame lives in the moment and the only people who are not her friends are the ones she hasn't met yet. Every day is an occasion for a party and the show opens on one such gala evening. The carousing is interrupted by the arrival of the recently orphaned Patrick, the son of Mame's late brother, and his dowdy nanny, Agnes Gooch (Ceit Zweil). Auntie immediately takes them under her generous, unorthodox wing and the adventures begin. Oh, there is the fusty bank representative Mr. Babcock (Sean McGuirk), appointed as Patrick's trustee, who tries to influence the boy's schooling and upbringing, but he is no match for Mame's wiles. Eventually he prevails, putting Patrick into a boarding school in Massachusetts, but he can't shake the bond between them.
The stock market crash interferes with Mame's lavish lifestyle, but it seems more of an inconvenience than a tragedy. It gives her the opportunity to try on a variety of career choices, each more disastrous than the last, but she meets a new beau while working as a manicurist. Beau (Will McGarrahan, genteel and adoring) is a wealthy Southern gentleman deeply in thrall to Mame when he brings her home to introduce her to his Mother Burnside (Margaret Ann Brady, the perfect matriarch) and takes her out on a fox hunt. After winning everyone's heart, they salute her with the title song, and of course she and Beau marry. Their honeymoon lasts so long that, in their absence, Patrick grows into a young man (dulcet-toned Matty Rickard).
Looking for a project at which she can succeed, Mame enlists Vera to remake Agnes as a swinger, with unintended consequences. Zweil waddles into the spotlight and does a stellar job on "Gooch's Song," putting her own comic stamp on the much-loved character. Mame's next challenge is the conservative family of Patrick's well-to-do fiancée Gloria (pouty Sarah Kawalek), but they are a tougher nut to crack. Concerned that her ward will become dull and ordinary (a high crime in her book) if he marries into the Upson clan, Mame finds a way to get her point across with a scheme that is funny, harmless, and generous. In the end, she has a new boy to expose to the wonders of the world - her own, as well as the larger one outside of the confines of NYC.
St. George seems the logical choice for the role. Although diminutive in size, she is a force of nature on the stage and shares the feisty, welcoming spirit of her character. She is a lot of fun to watch, but she also captures the poignant aspects of such songs as "If He Walked Into My Life" and "My Best Girl," when she duets with Levesque. He sings it to her with the sweetest tone and demeanor, getting deep into the heart of the young boy's love for his aunt. As good as he sings, Levesque is also a natural actor who plays the ten-year old like a real boy, and he more than holds his own in the dance numbers. Keep your eye out for more from this kid.
Stoneham Theatre scored a coup when they matched St. George with Callanan. They share longevity in the local theatre community and it pays off in their natural relationship on the stage. One of the highlights of the show is their act two duet ("Bosom Buddies"), but Callanan has some great moments of her own in the first act. Vera is an actress who, shall we say, likes to drink, and Callanan uses side glances, glares, and other means of physical expression to capture her character, especially when she doesn't utter a line. Robert Saoud (Tanner) is another local treasure whose interpretation of Mame's butler is quietly hilarious. Ditto Brady's split-personality performance as two very different mothers (Burnside and Upson). Katie Anne Clark (Sally Cato) oozes faux Southern charm, while you know she'd like to strangle Mame with a length of kudzu vine.
Ilyse Robbins wears two hats as director and choreographer, and Matt Stern does double duty as keyboardist and Music Director of the seven-piece orchestra. They are blessed with an ensemble that knows its way around a musical score and they do right by Jerry Herman. The choreography is underwhelming with a disappointing sameness (I could do the box step and the grapevine in my sleep after seeing them repeated way too many times), but the young dancers perform it with vim and vigor, and the voices are capable of coaxing the blues right out of the horn, especially in the production numbers like "It's Today," "Mame," and "That's How Young I Feel."
Although the cast is of a reduced size in keeping with the constraints of regional theater, this group plays it as big as they can in front of a multi-tiered unit set, designed with art deco flair by Katheryn Monthei. To accommodate the need for various locations, she has crafted pieces that rotate to display different scenes, and furnishings slide in and out for Mame's apartment. A very large staircase is the focal point in the center of the design and it offers opportunities, as well as dangers. The height of each step seems greater than average and it appears to be a challenge at times, especially when women are wearing long gowns. Jeff Adelberg's lighting design focuses attention when scenes are played in small areas of the stage, and serves as well to cast bright light on Mame's big, bold bashes. Sound Designer John Stone keeps a good volume balance between the musicians and the singers. Most of the chorus boys and girls play multiple roles, wearing a variety of great costumes by designer Tyler Kinney, and he also crafts some fine, fancy threads for his leading ladies.
Robbins deserves credit for gathering a great cast and keeping all of the parts of this production moving without a hitch. Most importantly, she finds a way to capture the lighthearted fun of the musical, even as she guarantees that we hear its little message advocating being open and inclusive. Mame isn't exactly a Christmas musical, but it fills the bill to usher in the holiday spirit of giving and making time to appreciate family and friends. Feel free to bring the kids to see this one.