Goodspeed's MAME lives, lives, lives!

Jacques Lamarre

Three-and-a-half stars

Patrick Dennis’ enduring creation Auntie Mame has long been a fantasy of children (and more than a few grown-ups). Not that most kids sit around wishing for their parents to meet a horrid end, but haven’t we all wished that some fabulous, sparkling character would sweep us up, whisk us away to a world of adventure, and love us unconditionally? First introduced to the world in 1955 via Dennis’ popular novel, Auntie Mame became a sensation when it was adapted first as a stage play and a film, both starring Connecticut’s own Rosalind Russell.

Jerry Herman wisely seized upon the character whose famous motto is “Life is a banquet and most poor sons of bitches are starving, so live, live, live!” Herman’s musical Mame whirled onto Broadway in 1966 making a stage star of Angela Lansbury. After being a smash hit novel, stage play, film and musical, is there anything that Auntie Mame couldn’t do? Well, yes. She couldn’t withstand the movie musical version with Lucille Ball, but that’s another story. Fortunately for the old gal, Goodspeed Musicals has resurrected everyone’s favorite giddy relation.

At the center of the production is Louise Pitre, proclaimed in the Goodspeed’s press materials as the “First Lady of Musical Theatre.” Having received a Tony nomination for her leading role in the Abba jukebox show Mamma Mia, Pitre shows what a true talent can do with an authentic Broadway score and a star turn. A silver fox with a shock of white hair and sequined costumes, you can hardly take your eyes off of Pitre. Although her Mame Dennis never quite feels like a Beekman Place bohemian and lacks the rapid-fire wackiness of Rosalind Russell’s indelible turn in the role, Pitre makes the character more earthy and puts her own stamp on the part. It is nice to see a diva with a powerful voice also be a credible hoofer with the actress kicking up her heels and keeping up with the high-energy chorus.

The role of the orphaned Patrick Dennis is played as a child in the first act by Eli Baker and in the second act as an adult by Charles Hagerty. The transformation from child to adult at the top of Act 2 is a simple, thrilling bit of stage business. As portrayed in the original film version, Patrick is a cloying presence in the first half making the character icky-sweet. Mop-topped Baker’s performance is a bit of an improvement, but needs to be more realistic. Hagerty is very effective and sings beautifully in the part of the older Patrick.

In the key role of Vera Charles, Judy Blazer is serviceable, but fails to deliver the tart wit of Coral Brown from the film or the dry deadpan of the musical’s Bea Arthur. She is fun in her performance of “The Man in the Moon,” but her zinger-filled duet “Bosom Buddies” falls flat instead of flattening the audience. Kirsten Wyatt ends up stealing the show and the laughs in the role of Agnes Gooch, Mame’s nanny-turned-secretary-turned fallen women. Her Act 2 solo stopped the show cold and was one of the funniest performances I’ve ever seen at the Goodspeed.

The costumes by Gregg Barnes are stunningly opulent riffing on 1920s flapper-wear up through mid-century couture. Each of Mame’s ensembles seems determined to outdo the previous one. Although Pitre sticks with her natural white hair, the rest of the cast is augmented with exceptionally well-designed wigs by Gregg Barnes. The busy scenic design by James Youmans echoes the Art Deco-era and adds to the overall, over-stuffed opulence of the production.

Despite any minor reservations with the production, Goodspeed’s Mame is hugely crowd-pleasing and delivers high-energy fun -- a great way to start your summer.

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