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This review by Simon Saltzman was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on September 29, 1999. All rights reserved.
Review: `Mame’ at Paper Mill
Whether you cherish the memory of Rosalind Russell’s
over-the-top Auntie Mame, or found Angela Lansbury’s more elegantly
idiosyncratic interpretation more to your liking, audiences and stars
alike have long cherished Patrick Dennis’s wildly romantic character.
The adventures of young Dennis, growing up in the household and under
the influence of his flamboyant fictional aunt, are familiar background
for the Paper Mill Playhouse excursion into the pseudo-Bohemian lifestyle
of a wealthy Beekman Place widow of the 1920s.
Just to recapitulate what everyone knows: "Auntie Mame" was
a book by Patrick Dennis, adapted into a play of the same title in
1956 by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, and subsequently refashioned
into a musical, in 1966, to a score by Jerry Herman. Both the play
and musical versions have proved a godsend to many a middle-aged Hollywood
or Broadway diva, who then toured with the show for years.
In Paper Mill’s visually sumptuous production of the musical, directed
by Robert Johanson, Christine Ebersole tackles the formidable and
famous role of the madcap widow. If there are times when Ebersole’s
aggressively superficial approach to the role seems amusing, there
are more times when we are aware that this otherwise fine performer
simply does not have that special spark or star quality than can make
"Mame" an enviable mixture of reckless abandon and resolute
Just as Ebersole appears less in command of Mame’s sentimental nature
than of her giddy and goofy side, we have no choice but to be moved
less by her indomitable spirit than by her antics. Ebersole’s deficiency
is most notable in her bland and perfunctory singing of "If He
Walked Into My Life," a song that is usually filled with poignancy.
This creates a major void in a role that is meant to warm our hearts
as much as tickle our funny bone.
Despite the void at the center, Herman’s lilting score, with those
"banjos strummin’ and plunkin’ out a tune to beat the band,"
remains a crowd-pleaser. There is actually quite a bit of joy being
spread across the lavishly designed and smoothly staged show. Oddly,
the joy this time isn’t coming as much from the leads, Ebersole, as
Mame, and Kelly Bishop, as Vera Charles, as from the young Paul S.
Iancono, as Mame’s 10-year-old ward, Patrick.
From the moment Mame instills in the receptive Patrick a desire for
adventure and openness ("Open a New Window"), young Iancono
takes our hearts and breath away with his endearing robust acting.
As the older Patrick, Ken Bartlett doesn’t let his younger self down,
disarmingly changing from being a misguided snob into a mature adult
with a renewed respect for his incomparable Auntie Mame. Danette Holden
pulled out every stop to make her role as Gloria, Patrick’s blue-blooded
Connecticut girlfriend, into an affectation-filled cartoon. David
Titus gets the required laughs in two assignments, as Gloria’s over-bearing
bigoted father and as the belching battleax, Mother Burnside. As the
dashing Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside, master of Peckerwood
Plantation, Dan Schiff does a plausible job of sweeping Mame off her
feet, before falling off the Matterhorn.
Another scene-stealer is Sandy Rosenberg, as the myopic, stoop-shouldered
secretary and nanny, Agnes Gooch. Rosenberg has a field day with a
broad, but outrageously funny, characterization. The irony of Rosenberg’s
innocently impressive presence is that it continually upstages Kelly
Bishop as Vera Charles, Mame’s "bosom buddy." Although delivered
well enough, Bishop’s bombardment of exhaustingly caustic retorts
couldn’t compete with Rosenberg’s larger-than-life interpretation,
which grew more hilarious with each entrance. Even Rosenberg’s attempts
to sit or climb stairs in her most "delicate condition" created
gales of laughter.
Since Vera Charles is a role that depends on bitchiness for its glory,
Bishop goes through the obligatory motions like a trooper and hits
her stride in "Bosom Buddies," the vaudeville number she does
with Ebersole that is intended as a show-stopping duet. That it doesn’t
score very high may be more due to the over-familiarity we have with
the sassy quips and snippy put-downs than to the way it was sung.
And the silly miming and mincing about of "The Man in the Moon"
production number gets less tolerable with the years. Can’t someone
refresh this stale bit of kitsch, or at least try to make it funny?
Designer Michael Anania does wonders with a changing unit set, that
wittily and whimsically keeps up with Auntie Mame’s flair for interior
decorating over decades, but takes us on some of her wondrous journeys.
Within the opulence of the scenic design, Johanson speeds the action
along even when it seems there is no real action, only jokes, to speed
along. We can applaud David Murin’s breathtaking costume designs,
especially the many go-for-ga-ga outfits that say to us we can make
a star out of anyone.
— Simon Saltzman
973-376-4343. $35 to $55. To October 24.
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