Legendary Broadway composer Jerry Herman created 13 shows across his career; three of them are in the canon of Broadway classics. “La Cage Aux Folles” remains iconic as much for its subject matter as its melodies; “Hello Dolly!” overshadows them all, both for its place in pop culture and its status as a lasting star vehicle for Carol Channing. And then, there’s “Mame,” the 1966 Broadway hit that follows a free spirit woman and her nephew through Depression-era adventures as they find new and interesting ways to buck the status quo.
Despite its stronger structure and sprawling plot, “Mame” has never quite soared to the same heights of popularity as “Dolly” or “La Cage,” and it is sort of a mystery as to why; the score is bouncy and fun, the characters larger than life, and the story both complex and satisfying. Bucks County Playhouse’s current revival, starring stage icons Andrea McArdle and Lea DeLaria, is an admirable and spirited effort with a solid cast and a collection of noteworthy and entertaining moments.
“Mame” is adapted from Patrick Dennis’ book and the movie adaptation of the same, which starred Rosalind Russell; the musical went on to a 1974 film adaptation of its own, starring Lucille Ball. The story is not hard to follow: Mame and her bohemian collection of New York personalities enjoy a lifestyle full of swinging New York parties and bathtub gin. All of that is complicated when Mame’s brother dies, leaving 10-year-old nephew Patrick in her care, with his caretaker, Agnes Gooch, in tow.
Both Patrick and Agnes are quickly folded into Mame’s entourage, headlined by famed and vaguely terrifying actress Vera Charles. From there, a series of adventures ensues, all wrapped around Mame’s famous credo: “Life is a banquet, and most poor sons-of-bitches are starving to death.” It’s a story of fortunes lost and gained, surprising romance, class struggles, and the choice to follow the herd or one’s own voice. It also has a collection of memorable songs, most notably “We Need a Little Christmas,” made famous in covers by everyone from Johnny Mathis to the Muppets.
Any production of “Mame” lives and dies based on the relationship between Mame and Patrick, and, on that front, this incarnation succeeds in spades, especially in the first act. McArdle, renowned as the originator of the title role in the 1977 musical “Annie,” is fantastic. In addition to possessing a gorgeous and sparkling voice and physical presence, she is buoyant, mischievous, grounded, and tremendously entertaining to watch.
The two actors portraying Patrick — JD Triolo, as the child, and Matthew Wojtal, as the young man — make an excellent foil for McArdle: first as a wide-eyed boy new to the madcap world of his aunt, and then as a questioning contrarian seeking a different kind of structure as an adult. The relationship between McArdle and Triolo, who has the makings of a terrific actor, is particularly adorable. When Mame marries a suitor (the charming Andy Joos) at the end of the first act, the crushing disappointment from Triolo is heartbreaking, and Mame’s reassurance via a reprise of the show’s second best known song, “My Best Girl,” is emotional and true. The relationship between Patrick and Mame is worth the price of admission in this production.
With that said, there are some challenges in this rendition. DeLaria’s Vera is bombastic and suitably ascorbic, but the role, originated by the legendary Bea Arthur, calls for a mix of sweet and dour that is a bit off balance here. The second act number between Mame and Vera, “Bosom Buddies,” is a claws-out flurry of passive aggression and affection between the two old friends that really requires a solid mix of love and venom to sell it — while there’s plenty of the first, not enough of the second. Here, Vera is a lovable, slightly Sapphic lush, but lacks much of the intimidation required to really make the role funny and whole.
There are some technical concerns, as well. This co-production with The Media Theater requires projections for much of its sets, which is understandable given the needs of moving an entire show; it creates a little bit of a threadbare look, however. There are not enough levels in the sets, with dancers occasionally getting lost in a herd on the stage’s bare foreground. And a technical malfunction during the performance I attended transformed the backdrop of Mame’s townhouse into a massive, flowing screen of blue, giving the impression that the cast is performing on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. All of this is forgivable, however, given the overall quality of the performances.
I’m looking forward to a bright future for Bucks County Playhouse; the storied theater is actively seeking a return to its former era as a venue of national recognition, and “Mame” is a valiant step on that path.
Mame, Bucks County Playhouse, 70 South Main Street, New Hope. Through Sunday, June 9. $29-$57.50. www.bcptheater.org or 215-862-2121.