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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

Mame, Paper Mill Playhouse, Brookside Drive, Millburn,

973-376-4343. $35 to $55. To October 24.

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