Light Opera Works
by Dan Zeff
Evanston – Say this for the Light Opera Works revival of “Mame.” The musical is beautifully designed, energetically danced, very well sung, and splendidly accompanied by a superb pit orchestra, the kind of Broadway caliber ensemble that only the Light Opera Works is willing to employ.
On the less positive side, “Mame,” though one of the major hits of the 1960’s, has a less than stellar book. The Light Opera staging is too often sluggish, extending the show’s playing time to almost three hours. And while star Nancy Hays is an outstanding singer, dancer, and actress, she doesn’t give the title role the outsized comic personality required to paper over some of the dead spots in the book. Plus, key comedy scenes come across as silly rather than funny.
Jerry Herman composed the score for “Mame” in 1966. Two years previously, he hit the box office jackpot with his score for “Hello, Dolly!,” one of the major hits in modern musical history. Both shows revolve around an unconventional middle-aged woman who can be described variously as madcap, unconventional, and indomitable. And both shows feature signature title songs. Dolly Gallagher Levi meet Mame Dennis.
“Mame” made money for author Patrick Dennis in three formats, starting with his novel “Auntie Mame,” Then came a 1954 straight play adaptation and the 1966 musical (a 1974 movie adaptation starring Lucille Ball was a disaster). The storyline covers a time span from 1928 to 1946, most of it set in Mame Dennis’s luxury apartment in New York City. Much of the ramshackle plot deals with Mame’s relationship with her orphaned nephew Patrick, brought to her apartment at the age of 10 in 1928 by the boy’s nanny, Agnes Gooch. As she raises Patrick, Mame tries to protect the boy from the ultra conservative manipulations inflicted by the boy’s lawyer guardian. After Patrick grows up, Mame steps in to save Patrick from marrying into a smug and self righteous wealthy New England family. The conservatives are all cartoons, easy targets for Mame’s genially outrageous advocacy of living the full life.
Photo Credit: Mona Luan
Patrick is splendidly played by Zachary Scott Fewkes as a boy with Justin Adair stepping in as Patrick as a young man. The only other character who matters is Vera Charles, Mame’s actress best friend played in her best Ethel Merman style by Mary Robin Roth. The clueless Agnes (Alicia Berneche) , under Mame’s influence, throws off the shackles of her nerdiness and winds up pregnant, resulting in a couple of lumbering pregnancy scenes that most people in the audience found far funnier than I did.
Hays has a versatility-testing role. She not only sings and reprises more than a half dozen songs, she dances the tango, cakewalk, Charleston, and lindy hop in fine style. And Hays doesn’t fake her hoofing, relying on a talented chorus to carry her. She high steps with her own skill set. But she isn’t able to fully capture the irrepressible element in Mame’s character, resulting in Mary Robin Roth’s self dramatizing take on Vera Charles grabbing the spotlight in their scenes together. There was also fine work by Russell Alan Rowe in the non-musical role of publisher Lindsay Woolsey.
The staging really rides the wave of the Clayton Cross choreography, executed with much ebullience by a giant chorus that seems to include half the population of Evanston. The dancing numbers, enhanced by Robert Kuhn’s colorful costumes, are among the best I’ve ever seen at Light Opera Works.
Jerry Herman’s score doesn’t quite match the songs in “Hello, Dolly!,” but they include some semi-standards, like “Open a New Window,” “We Need a Little Christmas,” and especially “If He Walked into My Life.” There is a delicious tart comic duet called “Bosom Buddies” in which Mame and Vera exchange smiling bitchy insults. But a number in which Mame ruins a Vera Charles solo number with some pratfall antics is lame.
Photo Credit: Mona Luan
Director Rudy Hogenmiller’s directing isn’t able to overcome the lack of pace in too many of the scenes. But the design crew covers itself with glory, not only Kuhn’s costumes but in Adam Veness’s sets, Andrew Meyers’s lighting, and Aaron Quick’s sound. As usual, Roger L. Bingaman conducts the company orchestra with a full-bodied Broadway sound.
“Mame” remains a good audience show. Who can resist the appeal of a charming, devil may care heroine doing battle with the forces of stuffy and prejudiced conservatism, and winning? It’s not a perfect evening, with problems shared by the original show and the Light Opera Works revival, but both venues also contribute plenty of sparkling moments, so on balance the production is worth seeing. Nomenclature note: starting in 2017, the company will be renamed the Music Theater Works.
“Mame” runs through August 28 at the Cahn Auditorium, 600 Emerson Street. Performances are Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday at 2 p.m. and Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. Tickets begin at $34. Call 847 920 5360 or visit www.LightOperaWorks.com.
The show gets a rating of 3 stars August 2016
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