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BWW Reviews: Matthew McGee as Everyone's Favorite Aunt in Jerry Herman's MAME at freeFall

MAME is Jerry Herman's finest musical. Hello Dolly may be more famous, and La Cage aux Folles certainly has had more of an impact, but MAME remains Herman's masterpiece. The title character stands at the forefront of great, strong female characters from classic mid-1960's musicals (labeled "diva vehicles" by some), leading a parade of icons that include Dolly Levi, Fanny Brice, and Charity Hope Valentine. I first saw MAME in 1969 with Edie Adams when I was six, and it has stayed with me ever since. Some of the songs are Herman's finest achievements, including "Open a New Window," "Bosom Buddies," and "If He Walked Into My Life." But it's the character of Mame that has attracted such diverse individuals as Angela Lansbury, Celeste Holm, Carol Lawrence, Elaine Stritch, and Lucille Ball (the latter in the terrible movie version of MAME, on par with A Chorus Line as the worst movie based on a hit Broadway musical that should only be seen by lovers of the Razzie Awards).

When I told a friend that freeFall Theatre was producing MAME this year, he raised an eyebrow. "They always do some kind of twist with all of their shows; what kind of twist can they do with MAME?"

I answered him with a mere five words: "Matthew McGee as Mame Dennis."

He smiled. "That I have to see!"

And now that MAME has opened at freeFall, with McGee in the iconic lead role, it has become the Bay area's "must see" theatrical event of the summer. And with good reason. You will never in your life see a MAME like this one, not technically with its incredible multi-media work (the folks at freeFall outdid themselves here), not with the stellar supporting cast, and not with the one and only Matthew McGee as Mame.

People have debated the idea of a male playing a feminist heroine like this; some have claimed that it defeats the purpose of feminism (here's a woman soaring in a man's world...played by a man?) People have questioned whether any man, even one as talented as Matthew McGee, can get away with it by not playing into the easy camp of "Mame as drag queen." O ye of little faith! I am here to ease your worries. By playing it straight forward, by treating Mame's moments as real and heartfelt and exuberant as anyone of either gender can play it, McGee has staked his claim as one of our area's treasures. It may be a gimmick, but it's a gimmick that works.

This isn't the first time a male has played the role of Mame; Charles Busch did it in the non-musical Auntie Mame. So this isn't an entirely new concept. When McGee first appeared onstage as Herman's heroine, I held my breath. Will he get away with it? Two minutes later I easily suspended disbelief and pretty much forgot a man was playing the part (even though I sometimes wished his make-up was more realistic for a woman). That's when I was swept away with the story, with Mame's relationship with her nephew Patrick, and with the events that made this Herman's masterwork. McGee is, in a word, sensational. He's always in the moment, always alive and thriving, and we believe Mame's philosophies to "open a new window" and that "life is a banquet and most sons of bitches are starving." We understand why young Patrick follows her lead (but have some questions what Beauregard sees in her at their first meeting in the salon). Mame is a cheerleader of life, and McGee captures this verve beautifully. But his finest moments as an actor are the quiet ones; in the instance where Mame feels as though she has lost her nephew, McGee looks thunderstruck, heartsick before ultimately bouncing back. (His "If He Walked Into My Life" later in the show broke my heart.) There's a real actor here, not just a comedian who likes to wear lipstick.

The title role was on McGee's bucket list of characters he would like to play (after seeing Rosalind Russell in Auntie Mame as a child), and now he can cross that item off his list confidently, with a Mame-like flair.

But McGee as Mame isn't the only twist in this delightful treat. The show's director, the brilliant Eric Davis, has turned this into a memory play, and I think it is far more successful than the memory play he created with Cabaret (a big hit, but not my favorite use of the device). Here, it makes total sense having the Older Patrick watch the events of the Younger Patrick and his life-affirming aunt. Usually, Older Patrick appears in Act 2 only, but that would waste the talent of Nick Lerew, who turns in the finest performance of the production. Even when Lerew has no words, such as in the show's beginning, he is superb. And his singing and acting are tops. In four very different shows at freeFall, I have never seen Lerew give a bad or even average performance; he's always extraordinary, one of the few actors I've ever seen that's batting a thousand with his roles. And he even matches up well with the Younger Patrick (a darling William Garrabrant whose eyes are so saucer-big that he looks like one of the "Love Is" comic strip kids come to life).

Equally good to Lerew is Lulu Picart as Agnes Gooch. She is one of the most likable performers I've seen in years, and her rendition of "Gooch's Song," usually a throwaway, becomes one of the best numbers of the night and got one of the biggest ovations. Maya Naff, as Pegeen Ryan, is an astonishing presence onstage, and we are so happy that she winds up with the Older Patrick (that's not a Spoiler Alert since the show opens with those two together). And Emilee Dupre is positively stunning in the dual roles of Sally Cato and Gloria Upson.

Patrick Ryan Sullivan, who was such a strong presence in last year's Burnt Part Boys, is a perfect Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside. It's as if the role had been written for him.

The part of Vera Charles is one of those supporting musical theatre roles that wind up stealing the show--like Kodaly in She Loves Me, Sancho Panza in Man of La Mancha and Bud Frump in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. On Broadway, Bea Arthur became a star as Vera, and at freeFall, Lourelene Snedeker holds her own. Even if she doesn't reach the Bea Arthur highs, she's incredibly entertaining, though "Bosom Buddies"--her "frenemy" duet with Mame--put the actress at a disadvantage because we could hardly hear her while McGee projected clearly and crisply.

The high-energy ensemble is simply brilliant, including David Bevis, Shain Stroff, and Mark Vincent Mansilungan. John Lombardi has his moments as the fuddy-duddy Dwight Babcock, but he sometimes seemed to be struggling with some of his lines.

My main qualm with the production comes with the treatment of the uptight, blue-blooded Mrs. Upson. Here I think it was a grave error having a male--Patrick Ryan Sullivan--play the part. Sullivan is such an imposing persona, and unlike McGee's Mame, we can never accept him as female in the role, no matter how much we try to suspend our disbelief. There is no way we can see him as anything but a hulking man in a dress. And it shouldn't be played for laughs because all along the show avoided using drag as camp (McGee isn't playing Mame as a drag queen; he's playing Mame as a woman, and that difference matters). This hurts the production because Mrs. Upson is a snob, a pinky-always-out, nose-always-upturned death of the party, and seeing her as a muscular man in drag with a noticeably hairy chest throws all of the character's snootiness out the door. It affects the entire ending...Mame against the world, Mame showing up the uncaring rich folk who will ruin her nephew if she doesn't stop them. It's such a strange casting choice (perhaps done for economic reasons), and it doesn't work here. It undermines Mame's victory against the prejudicial Upson family.

But the rest of the show is a marvel. MAME once again showcases the creative hurricane that is Eric Davis. Everything he does inventively pushes the envelope. With the tech and the casting, he has turned MAME, considered a safe musical, into a risky affair that pays off ten-fold. Shane Stroff's choreography is spectacular, alive, filled with bodies constantly moving in joyous electricity. His work in "We Need a Little Christmas" is my favorite moment of the show, especially the re-creation of Santa's sleigh (you have to see it to believe it). If "Alabanza" in In The Heights at American Stage was the heart-tugging musical number of the year, then "We Need a Little Christmas" from MAME is hands down the most joyous.

David M. Covach's costume designs are colorful, engaging and, like Mame herself, full of life (Mame's costumes during the Burnside plantation scenes garnered applause). Susan Haldeman's wigs are quite striking, and it doesn't bother us that some of Mame's hairstyles are anachronistic. Mike Wood's lighting is once again the pinnacle in the area.

I'm used to seeing MAME with big sets and thousands of bodies onstage, but it works wonderfully here with Greg Bierce's minimal sets and nine Brady Bunch tic-tac-toe video-screen windows complete with animated blinds, a red curtain, and anything else you need. Who misses elaborate scenery when you have this awe-inducing multi-media concoction?

Michael Raabe proves once again why he is the best musical director in the area. The voices were gorgeous, great harmonies, though sometimes I couldn't hear everyone (especially Younger Patrick). Raabe's piano work was exquisite, and the onstage three-piece orchestra worked wonders (with Irving Goldberg's bass and Burt Rushing on the drums). I was also thrilled to see that freeFall included a song list in their program; this had been missing in the past, and I heartily welcome it for those of us who like to read it afterwards.

As I mentioned earlier, I saw MAME as a child, and the freeFall show was so special that it brought back those feelings from my own childhood--of sheer euphoria, of love of life. It brought back, through the leadership of everyone's favorite aunt, the sense that anything was possible, and that the only way to live life was to grab it and to experience it, to devour that banquet of bliss for all its worth. That is what all of the best musicals--all of the best art--brings to us.

MAME starring Matthew McGee in the title role plays until August 9th. For tickets, please call (727) 498-5205.



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From This Author - Peter Nason