BWW Review: MAME is Back and Better Than Ever at Riverside Center
Mame Dennis Burnside has coaxed the blues right out of the horn many times since the late 1960s and Riverside Center for the Performing Arts has brought the ditzy, glitzy and glamorous free-spirit back for a big, old fashioned musical hit. This new production of MAME looks and sounds like a million bucks and deserves to be a solid, sell-out for the holidays.
How does one pick just one jewel in the midst of an embarrassment of riches? The production as a whole is packaged with delicious costume designs - by Gaye Law - and a stylish scenic design by Benjamin Burke that befits the classic musical adaptation of the hit comedy play AUNTIE MAME by book writers Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee and HELLO, DOLLY!'s composer-lyricist Jerry Herman. MAME was Herman's follow up to DOLLY and it was nearly as big a hit, running for years and kick-starting Hollywood character actress Angela Lansbury's successful second career in musical theatre. (Not to mention a steady parade of replacements including Janis Paige, Celeste Holm and a tap-dancing Ann Miller!)
Leading the musical comedy at Riverside is Sandy Bainum and she is the picture of glamor, grace, charm and offers a vivacious portrayal of everyone's favorite aunt. Bainum has the elegance, beauty and winning vocal power to enchant the full houses that seem to be the fate of this production. (Don't hesitate to get your tickets!) The comic turns are in good hands with Bainum but she handles the music like a Broadway star. Whether she is warbling "Open a New Window" to her new-found nephew or delivering her 11 o'clock number "If He Walked into My Life," Bainum makes Mame's songs her own.
Bainum also has great chemistry with all the performers who support her as Mame, starting with the local youngster who plays her orphaned nephew, Patrick. Ethan Theriot, with an impish gleam in his eye and perfect comic timing, enchants his Auntie Mame and I am pretty sure the entire audience. Theriot holds his own not only with Bainum, but his other sidekick for MAME, returning celebrity and Riverside veteran Sally Struthers who takes on the supporting role of nanny Agnes Gooch. Previously, Struthers packed the houses for HELLO, DOLLY! in the title role and has returned for some memorable cameos in such shows as THE FULL MONTY and 9 TO 5. This time, Struthers takes on an iconic comic role and uses her acting abilities - and memorable singing voice - in a more subtle manner as suits the role. But fear not: Gooch's second act transformation from uptight wall flower to blossomed woman of the world is a comedic masterpiece.
Other Riverside regulars offer essential support as well, especially the salty contralto comedienne Kathy Halenda as Mame's best friend, stage star Vera Charles. When Bainum and Halenda take the stage to deliver Herman's ultimate buddy song "Bosom Buddies," the walls of the theatre fall away and are filled with the huge voices and presence of two seasoned performers.
Alan Hoffman makes a dashing Southern charmer out of Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside who sweeps Mame off of her feet. Robert Beard adds proper bluster as the uptight banker Dwight Babcock, Mame's foil in raising Patrick during his tender years. Jordan Moral makes the most of the pre-politically correct Japanese houseboy Ito. Devon Clark, Carol Hagy, Ian Lane, Elizabeth Butler, and Andrea Kahane - most of whom are Riverside veterans - take on various roles with relish.
Providing double-duty as director and choreographer, Dann Dunn keeps the production moving at a brisk pace and provides the engaging ensemble with sprightly choreography and clever staging that makes full use of the small but flexible Riverside stage. Dunn's work, and Herman's score, is fully complimented by the brisk tempos and fine work by the live pit band, led by Walter "Bobby" McCoy.
MAME is a great alternative to the holiday-centric shows that are scattered around the local stages. It does, of course, include one of the modern seasonal standards, "We Need A Little Christmas" which the cast offers again at the curtain call as an audience sing-along. If you get tickets for MAME at Riverside, I'd say you will be hard-pressed not to sing along with the rest of the tunes.
Follow Jeffrey Walker on Twitter @jeffwalker66
MAME continues through January 17, 2016 at Riverside Center for the Performing Arts, 95 Riverside Parkway, Fredericksburg, VA 22406. For information or tickets, go to Riverside Center HERE or call (540) 370-4300.
PHOTO CREDIT: Riverside Center