Mame, the 1966 musicalized version of Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s play Auntie Mame, is one of those shows that was decades behind its time. Its devil-may-care, broadly drawn characters, even broader comedy, and hummable songs (composed by veteran tunesmith Jerry Herman) would have been perfect for the 1930s, in those pre-Oklahoma! days when escape was the order of the day and audiences didn’t care what kind of story entanglements the characters on stage were in, so long as they sang in tune and danced with lively energy. Mame was staged on Sunday, September 23 by Musical Theatre Guild in a single performance at the Alex Theatre in Glendale, before a full, enthusiastic house.
Mame is the kind of show that MTG does best, utilizing members of their stalwart roster of versatile actors, adept at assembling MTG’s stock-in-trade staged readings after a brief, but frenzied 25 hour rehearsal schedule. Over the years, MTG’s “readings” have become more and more elaborate, moving from actors speaking their parts from music stands to nearly fully fleshed out productions. A staged reading stresses story, characters, and music, eschewing the more expensive trappings of a Broadway musical such as scenery, props, costumes, and elaborate lighting. MTG does much more than necessary to put on their shows, and even with the actors toting around their obligatory scripts, the audience easily gets lost in the show’s easy flow; it’s so well directed and staged that one doesn’t even notice the held scripts, unless they are being used as a prop, such as when Southern plantation owner Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside uses it as a towel to place over his face during his disastrous manicure at the hands of newly destitute Mame Dennis.
Mame is the story of how a former socialite and bon vivant bohemian deals with the sudden loss of her riches during the Depression and still manages to raise her precocious nephew Patrick. The title role calls for a larger-than-life actress and although Kelly Lester doesn’t quite approximate someone with the theatrical gravitas of Angela Lansbury (who does?), she is nevertheless superb in the part, with outstanding comedic skills and a beautiful voice that tugs appropriately at the heartstrings with deliberately sentimental songs like “If He Walked Into My Life” and “That’s How Young I Feel.”
Mame’s cohort and BFF Vera Charles is played by Barbara Carlton Heart, a statuesque Carol Channing lookalike who knows how to properly heft a martini glass. When Heart and Lester perform together on their duet “Bosom Buddies,” they are so good that it makes one wonder what kind of Lucy-Ethel escapades they’d get into if they were ever spun off into a sitcom. Because of the nature of MTG’s short rehearsal schedule, inevitable mishaps like missed cues sometimes occur, and it’s delicious to see how the cast handles these when they come up. At one point, as Mame is anticipating Heart to enter from stage right, the audience heard Heart’s frenzied off-stage whisper on her live microphone saying, “I’m on the wrong side!” Unfazed, Lester continued looking off stage right while Heart entered from the wrong wing anyway, much to the delight of the audience.
Despite the excellence of its two stars, Mame was dominated by one of MTG’s most reliable character actresses, the amazing Melissa Fahn, who played Mame’s nerdy personal secretary Agnes Gooch. Fahn had her character down pat, right down to the Beth Howland vocal tremor, but don’t let her comic skills deceive you; she also possesses a rafters-reaching singing voice, which emerged in tantalizingly brief snatches in songs like “St. Bridget” and her Act II showcase, “Gooch’s Song.”
Young Travis Burnett excelled as 10-year-old Patrick, who reaps the benefits of Mame’s life lessons, often to the horror of some of her tony friends. In addition to whipping up a mean martini (which got a rousing ovation from the audience), Burnett poured on the pathos in his endearing duet with Lester, “My Best Girl.”
MTG regulars Glenn Shiroma (as Mame’s faithful servant, Ito), Michael Kostroff (stuffy trustee Dwight Babcock), Glenn Rosenblum (Mame’s faithful publisher), and Brent Schindele (Beauregard) were universally outstanding in their respective roles while the venerable Pamela Hamill was appropriately hilarious as the crusty Mother Burnside. The cast was spiced up by two performers familiar to Ventura County audiences: Michelle Lane (Diana in ARTS’ Next to Normal) and Natalia Vivino (a regular in several Cabrillo Music Theatre/5-Star Theatricals shows). Lane was especially good as the uppity Southern matron Mrs. Upson while Vivino got to display her powerhouse voice in the ensemble numbers.
It’s always good to see former Cabrillo Music Theatre artistic director Lewis Wilkenfeld directing with his usual sure hand, and Wilkenfeld brought along two compadres from his old Cabrillo units: choreographer Heather Castillo and the superbly talented musical director Cassie Nickols.
Despite the lightweight story, Mame can still inspire spinal shivers of delight, especially when the entire cast launched into the revered title song at the end of Act I. Georgia never had a sweeter peach.