Dear Mame at Goodspeed: We think you're just sensational!

By Tony Schillaci and Don Church

“Mame”, the 1966 Broadway hit with music and lyrics by Jerry Herman, is a jazzy and pizzazy musical comedy with a stellar cast and orchestra hitting all the right notes. When we saw the show at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut on May 9th, the performance not only ‘coaxed blues right out of the horn’ but also coaxed the audience right off its feet for cheers and a standing ovation.

 

The show is based on the 1955 novel Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis and a 1956 Broadway play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. The play was adapted into both a 1958 film and later a musical by its original authors in collaboration with the incomparable songmiester Jerry Herman.

 

After a rousing overture, the show opens quietly with nanny Agnes Gooch, brilliantly played by Kirsten Wyatt, singing to “St. Bridget” for protection from the wickedness of New York, while escorting Patrick, Auntie Mame’s nephew and new ward, to Mame’s luxurious apartment on chic Beekman Place.

 

The year is 1928, and inside the apartment, Auntie Mame is joyously brought to life by Louise Pitre, the Tony-nominated star of Broadway’s “Mamma Mia!” We first see her during a cocktail party singing “It’s Today” with a gathering of eccentric and hedonistic guests, which sets the energetic pace for the rest of the effervescent show.

 

Although Patrick has been delivered to Mame earlier than expected, during the raucous party, she nonetheless is enthusiastic and overjoyed by his arrival. She vows to teach him to enjoy life and all its pleasures by encouraging him to “Open A New Window” every day. 10-year-old Patrick is played by Eli Baker, who has a beautiful voice and a natural ability as an actor, giving Patrick a sweetness that completely captures the heart of Auntie Mame.

 

Ms. Pitre is a vibrant and exuberant Mame whose let-them-hear-you-in-the-back-balcony voice, and a commanding stage presence, makes it difficult to look at anyone else! For anyone who has seen earlier Mames on Broadway (play and musical), road companies and the film, including Connecticut’s Rosalind Russell, Angela Lansbury, Ann Miller, Janet Blair, Elaine Stritch, Bea Arthur and Lucille Ball, Ms. Pitre’s interpretation is a bit brassier and broader than previous incarnations of the character. Her second-act anthem, “If He Walked Into My Life,” sung with pathos and strength, gives us a glimpse into Mame’s soul, and shows us that the glitz and glamour of her life are meaningless without her precious nephew’s love. Ms. Pitre has played Edith Piaf onstage, and in this song her Piafesque-quality tugs unsentimentally at the heart strings.

 

Mame’s alcoholic friend Vera, as played by Judy Blazer, is made up to look more like the movie’s Norma Desmond than a major Broadway star of the time. There is room here for Vera to be played as an over-the-top stage diva, but the director has used too much of a light hand, and Ms. Blazer holds in her claws, even in the comically insulting number "Bosom Buddies." She does her best work in “The Moon Song” where she takes center stage and shows off her acting talent and big voice. Here she makes the part her own. Charles Hagerty (Older Patrick) is as handsome as his voice is beautiful. He is believable as the product of years of Auntie Mame’s tutelage. Kirsten Wyatt’s Gooch comes to life in the second act as she brings down the house with the ‘can’t miss’ “Gooch’s Song,” as she surprises with her bigger-than-expected vocalization and deft comedic timing.

 

James Seol plays Ito, the Houseman, who is onstage almost as much of the time as is Mame -- but is always quietly and charmingly very-much-in-the moment. During his turn with Mame, Agnes, Patrick and Beau in the infectious” We Need A Little Christmas,” Ito sparkles like tinsel.

 

James Lloyd Reynolds shows a restraint of bombast in his scenes as Mame’s southern ‘Beau’ and later husband. Paul Carlin as the do-gooder trustee and Mame’s monetary nemeses allows his character’s blood pressure to explode -- much to Mame’s delight. Director Ray Roderick and choreographer Vince Pesce give the production numbers a generous sprinkling of the spectacular. The most sensational of these is the end-of-first-act show-stopping anthem “Mame,” played out at Beau’s Peckerwood Plantation in the Old South during a foxhunt. The staunch southern gentry celebrates the arrival of Mame into their midst with gusto as the red-jacketed hunters line-kick while singing, “Your special fascination’ll, prove to be inspirational, we think you’re just sensational Mame!”

 

Of all the dances, the only one which could have been trimmed was the over-long avant-garde dance vignettes during the “Open A New Window” number. It seemed as if it would never end, and was the only yawn in the show. The song by itself is enough.

 

The cast and ensemble, all of whom deserve many rounds of applause, includes Erin Denman as Sally Cato, Alan Gillespie as Ralph Devine, James Beaman as M. Lindsay Wooley, Peter Leskowicz, Denise Lute (in a raucous portrayal of the overbearing and strongly opinionated Mother Burnside), Eric John Malhum as Mr. Upson, Mary Jo McConnell as Mrs. Upson, Kim Sava as Peegan, Melissa Steadman, Kit Treece, Kellyn Uhl (as the pretentious, bubble-headed Upson daughter Gloria); and John T. Wolfe. The swings are Brittany Bohn and Nick Nerio. Beau Landry, as Junior, also did a scene as Gregor, a flamboyant hairdresser, whose indignant exit had the audience roaring with laughter. And, we won’t forget the terrific young Lucas Schultz, who plays Older Patrick’s son, Peter. Good show, Lucas!

 

Scenic designer James Youmans created a stylish Beekman Place apartment, with its constantly changing paintings and decor spanning 1928 through 1946. Mame is right at home in this sassy-classy setting. Only the Darien barn on the Upson’s farm was a disappointment. It looked a too much influenced by Stew Leonard’s down-home sensibility rather than upscale Fairfield County pseudo-farm chic.

 

Gregg Barnes’ costumes celebrate glamour and the best of the flapper and 1930’s style. Ms. Pitre wears his clothes beautifully. (The audience was buzzing with gossip that she might be taking the wardrobe with her back to Canada.) Mr. Barnes’ talent brings champagne-sparkling sophistication to the cocktail party scene, and blousy southern decadence to the Peckerwood “Dixie-belles.”

 

Lighting design by Charlie Morrison and sound design by Jay Hilton deserve praise and prizes! How refreshing to see a show where the actors can be SEEN, and the songs can be HEARD. No missed craft opportunities here! This is musical comedy sound and light at its best from two of Connecticut Equity theaters finest.

 

The Music Director for Mame is Michael O’Flaherty who is in his 21st season as Goodspeed’s Resident Music Director. William J. Thomas is assistant music director, with supurb orchestrations that made a handful of musicians sound more like a Broadway pit orchestra as provided by Dan DeLange.

 

This is a big fun musical that shouts “BROADWAY” and deserves this terrifically brassy and entertaining Goodspeed Musicals revival. Louise Pitre’s unique take on Auntie Mame is worth the price of admission.

 

Due to ticket demand, this show has been extended through July 7th.

 

Performances are on Wednesday at 2:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Thursday at 7:30 p.m. (with select performances at 2:00 p.m.), Friday at 8:00 p.m., Saturday at 3:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. (with select performances at 6:30 p.m.).

 

Tickets are available through the Box Office (860.873.8668), open seven days a week, or on-line at goodspeed.org. The Goodspeed Opera House is at 6 Main Street, East Haddam, Connecticut.

 

Copyright 2012. Critics On The Aisle. All rights reserved.

 

Published by examiner.com and World News Syndicate May 15, 2012. To be published

In The Resident and Metroline News Magazine May 31, 2012

 

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