Even on top of a full weekend of Georgetown University reunion activities, I saw two musicals on Sunday: a matinee performance of Stephen Sondheim's Assassins at Signature Theatre in Arlington, and an evening performance of Jerry Herman's Mame at the Kennedy Center in Washington. Both are new productions of familiar works.
Here is my review of Mame, as prepared for this week's edition of The Metro Herald:
Aggiornamento: The Kennedy Center’s New Production of Mame
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor
You would think that when an adventuresome director like Eric Schaeffer chooses to do a Jerry Herman musical, he would pick something flawed (like Dear World) or obscure (like Milk & Honey) and then re-imagine it for contemporary audiences.
This is what he has done for more than a decade at Signature Theatre in Arlington with shows like Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Allegro and nearly every available Sondheim musical.
Instead, Schaeffer chose to direct a new production of Jerry Herman’s Mame at the Kennedy Center in a conventional – yet energetic and colorful – fashion.
Well, they say that Picasso could draw realistically, too, and better than most artists of his day.
Despite bursting the bubble of our expectations, Eric Schaeffer’s production of Mame is unquestionably a joy to see, with the exception of one element.
Let’s start with the look of the show. Set designer Walt Spangler has created a delightful retro foundation that gives us the sense of being in the high-rent district of Manhattan in the 1920s (just before the big Crash) and the early days of the Depression. His frequent second-act reinventions of Mame’s two-storey apartment (with its sweeping staircase, puckish murals, and hanging objets d’art) tell almost as much of the story as do the songs and script.
Similarly, costume designer Gregg Barnes provides us with character-based couture that immediately clues us in as to who we are watching, even before a single line of dialogue is spoken. This is, after all, a play in which a boy’s first pair of long pants is a significant plot device. We know who the WASPs are, and who are the bohemians, and our eyes bug out at the palette of colors that swirls around the stage.
This set-and-costume color is brought together by Broadway veteran Ken Billingsley’s lighting design, which takes its cue from Morton da Costa’s stagy but startlingly appropriate vision in his film version of Auntie Mame.
All of this is of a piece with Jerry Herman’s bold, brassy music. (Actually, Jerry Herman only writes bold and brassy, which in a lesser composer would be a serious defect. For him, it’s a lovable asset.) The iconic bugle in the original artwork for the 1966 production is no accident: What other musical’s score calls for both banjo and bugle in the pit orchestra?
The music is what makes Mame memorable above all else. Come to think of it, Mame was probably the last big Broadway musical to deliver a load of Top 40 hits. (This is as much due to the changing nature of radio playlists as it is to the transmogrification of Broadway showtunes and their contextualization on stage.) They’re easy to list: the title song, “We Need a Little Christmas,” It’s Today,” “Open a New Window,” and “If He Walked Into My Life.”
All of this leads to a simple conclusion: Mame is a big, happy show that will get huge amounts of applause.
Except for one thing: Christine Baranski in the title role is the show’s weakest link. If this production of Mame depended solely on her star power, it would be a dismal failure.
Baranski simply does not grasp her character. She never demonstrates an understanding of who Mame Dennis (later Mrs. Mame Dennis Burnside) really is.
And who is Mame Dennis? Mame is a woman of strong character and convictions masquerading as a flighty, eccentric dame. Yogis refer to the “kundalini” – a snake at the base of one’s spine that is all coiled energy, which through intensive study of yoga becomes uncoiled and in the control of the student. (If you know the end of the Jerome Lawrence-Robert E. Lee play, Auntie Mame, you’ll understand the relevance of this reference.)
Mame has a strong, uncoiled kundalini, which manifests itself through compassion, social tolerance, persistence, and confidence. Christine Baranski, however, fails to discover Mame’s core, and her kundalini remains flaccid.
The odd thing is, Baranski has all the gestures and vocal inflections we would expect from Mame’s character, but they are ad hoc and misdirected. This produces an eerie sensation that we are watching an acting teacher demonstrate for her students the proper facial expressions for “sad,” “happy,” “surprised,” and “indignant.” Baranski never seems to feel comfortable in the skin of Mame Dennis.
Baranski’s interpretation of her character falls short, but we are fortunate that there is balance in the form of Harrison Chad as Young Patrick, her nephew and ward. Although he is only 12 years old, Chad is an actor of obvious depth and understanding. His bright blue eyes successfully telegraph a range of discrete emotions.
This comes through particularly in the final scene of Act I, when just through his body language, we know that he is crestfallen at the news of his Auntie Mame’s engagement to be married. (The fact that we expect him to be joyful makes this moment particularly poignant.) Act I is a largely a two-character play and Chad’s presence makes Baranski look so much better; when he is replaced in Act II by Max von Essen as the older Patrick, and when more of the focus is on Mame herself rather than the dyad, Baranski’s shortcomings become much more apparent.
What’s even more unfortunate is that Tony Award-winner Baranski – who showed her talents quite fully as Mrs. Lovett in the Kennedy Center’s Sweeney Todd in 2002 – really can’t sing this role. This becomes sadly – almost painfully – clear in her big torch song of Act II, “If He Walked Into My Life,” which comes off almost like a female impersonator’s quirky version of Eydie Gorme’s hit single of 40 years ago.
If one has to do a production of Mame starring Christine Baranski, wouldn’t it make more sense for her to play Vera Charles? (At the Kennedy Center, Harriet Harris is hilarious and genuine as the drunken Broadway star and Mame’s best friend, the role originated by Bea Arthur.) Of course, Baranski has years of experience in precisely this role, when she played Ethel to Cybill Shepherd’s Lucy on the TV show Cybill (winning an Emmy in the process). That may be precisely the reason that Baranski would refuse to play Vera, but still ...
Despite these misgivings about the name above the title, it is impossible not to recommend the Kennedy Center’s new mounting of Mame. The cast includes familiar faces from Washington theatre (Michael L. Forrest and Harry A. Winter), Broadway (Emily Skinner and Ruth Gottschall, as well as Harris), and even Charlottesville’s Heritage Repertory Theatre (Kiira Schmidt in her KenCen debut). Audiences will find a tremendous collection of talent on the Eisenhower Theatre stage, integrated by Schaeffer’s direction and Warren Carlyle’s vibrant choreography.
Mame continues through July 2 at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theatre. Ticket prices range from $25 to $90. Tickets may be charged by phone through Instant-Charge at (202) 467-4600 from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. The toll-free number is (800) 444-1324. Tickets may also be ordered on line at www.kennedy-center.org.