Splashy “Mame” Staged at Ojai Art Center

REVIEW BY CARY GINELL

Broadway actresses who dread getting older for fear of losing leading parts have Jerry Herman to thank for writing Hello, Dolly! and Mame. The two musicals, which are virtually interchangeable, provide ample opportunities for larger-than-life portrayals of determined, never-say-die female characters who know how to descend an opulent staircase with flair, dominate the stage with droll witticisms, and deliver flag-waving melodies with verve and charm. Mame, which runs through August 9 at the Ojai Art Center Theater, is an old-fashioned, feel-good musical with plenty of hummable tunes to send you home happy with a smile and a song.

The show was based on Auntie Mame,  the 1955 best-selling novel by Patrick Dennis, which told of his growing up under the care of his fictional madcap aunt during the Depression. The novel became a hit play in 1956 and a musical in 1966. The musical version, which starred Angela Lansbury and Beatrice Arthur, ran for three-and-a-half years on Broadway, but has only been revived once, in a poorly-received production in 1983 (also starring Lansbury) that lasted only one month.

Mame celebrates an escapist’s view of New York in the 1930s. As the New York Times described it, Manhattan was “a place where no one worried about money, only fools bothered to work, and everyone could spend a lifetime getting sloshed on martinis at the Algonquin.” In the middle of all of this ostrich-head-in-the-sand ignoring of hard times enters the play’s author, fashioning himself as a ten-year-old orphan who enters his aunt’s life because he has no other relative to go to. Mame is, in that sense, a kind of mirror image of Annie. Like Daddy Warbucks and Annie, Mame takes her nephew under her bejeweled wing and teaches him how to mix martinis, use ribald language, and, above all, “live, live, live!”

The story traces Mame’s madcap life as her fortunes are wiped out by the stock market crash, and then, while failing spectacularly in her job as a manicurist, impulsively marries a courtly Southern aristocrat, who takes her on an endless worldwide honeymoon to exotic locales, with feathers and boas trailing behind her.

The title character is played by Tracey Williams Sutton, herself a larger-than-life figure on the Ojai stage. Sutton, who sports as many theater credits as Mame has rhinestones, was born to play this role. Her sleek, leggy figure is perfect from which to hang Edmund Andreas’s opulent, Art Deco costumes, and she looks great in all of them, especially when descending a staircase, probably Jerry Herman’s most identifiable stage device. Sutton’s comic timing is impeccable, as she plays straight woman to her cast of daffy co-stars.

The fun in Mame comes from these eccentric characters that Mame surrounds herself with, led by her “bosom buddy,” the booze-sodden, overtly theatrical actress Vera Charles, played with panache by Laura Ring. In addition to draping herself in semi-sloshed fashion over every set piece on the stage, Ring possesses a whiskey-soaked baritone that would make Bea Arthur proud. Her best moment comes in the send-up of cliched operettas in “The Moon Song,” during which she desperately attempts to keep a ridiculously sparkly cone-shaped headdress from falling off of her head.

Almost stealing the show is Ezra Eeels, who gives a fabulous performance as Mame’s decorously elegant Japanese butler, Ito. Eeels not only provides some deliciously comical attempts at broken English, he also showcases an exceptional talent for dancing and acrobatics. At one point, during the song “We Need a Little Christmas,” he executes a perfect one-handed cartwheel, to the delighted astonishment of the audience.

As Agnes Gooch, Patrick’s nanny and Mame’s erstwhile secretary, Anna Kotula is an unmitigated object of hilarity. Every move she makes is calculated for laughs and she succeeds admirably. Her laborious ascending of the staircase in Mame’s mansion while six months pregnant is something not seen outside of The Carol Burnett Show.

It’s a shame that Mame’s brand-new husband, Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside, fell off a Swiss alp to his death and vanishes in Act II because Phil Nemy’s portrayal of the courtly Burnside is marvelous. Nemy, whose voice oozes honey and mint juleps, leads the ensemble in the show’s inimitable title number, which is probably one of the greatest songs ever written for a Broadway musical. It would be a tragedy if its romanticizing about the glorious Old South became a victim of today’s scourge on anti-Confederacy references in popular culture because its high-kicking, strutting Dixieland aura brings down the house every time it is performed.

In minor roles, Bill Spellman is excellent as the stuffy lawyer-executor of Patrick’s estate, Rhett Speer and Jack Evans effectively portray Patrick, respectively, as a youth and young man, and Morgan Bozarth is charming as the interior decorator that Patrick eventually falls for and marries. Marilyn Lazik has only a small role, as Burnside’s feisty mother, but her funny performance brings to mind the work of the late Judith Lowry, who played similarly cranky, acid-tongued dowagers on television and in films well into her eighties.

Director Brian Robert Harris did an excellent job condensing this “big show” onto the small Ojai Art Center Theater stage. Neva Williams’ set design and Anna Kotula’s choreography (with Beverley Sharpe, co-choreographer) were appropriately scaled down for the space, while Andy Street’s pared-down four-piece orchestra ably covered all the important musical parts. Although many of the cast members are not highly trained singers, the quality was satisfactory overall, as the stronger performers helped hide most of the tonal inaccuracies.

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Mame plays through August 9 at the Ojai Art Center. For dates and showtimes, consult the VC On Stage Calendar.

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