a dame: Duncan in Mame at Barrington Stage Company
by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, music and lyrics by
Jerry Herman, based on the novel by Patrick Dennis and the
play, Auntie Mame, by Lawrence and Lee, directed by
Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, Mass., through Oct.
At the Williamstown Theatre Fes-tival last summer, Roger Rees
boasted that his fully staged Anything Goes was a hit
that sold out. It sold out before it opened due to Cole Porter,
but Rees’ inept staging, empty vision and cheapskate production
values became the joke of the Berkshires summer theater season,
with some patrons actually wondering where the set was. So
here, at Barrington Stage Company, is Julianne Boyd’s concert
(i.e., not fully staged) version of Mame that
fills the stage more completely than any moment in Rees’ debacle.
There is decidedly a new player in town.
Boyd stages this concert version along the lines of New York
City’s popular Encores series in which actors appear with
scripts in hand flanked by an orchestra and only hints of
scenery and costumes. The idea is to hear the music and songs
and to tell the worthy story of Mame Dennis, who undertakes
to give her 10-year-old nephew, Patrick, a rare education
in approaching life as a banquet. Although the musical fairly
cries out for racks of costumes and scene changes (and Boyd
does give it more costumes and light cues than do some alleged
full productions), Boyd primarily establishes the ’20s and
’30s and the elegance of Mame’s residence at Beekman Place
in New York City through well-chosen details and her strong
cast and production team.
When there are scripts in hand, they never interfere with
the acting, but the scripts actually are rarely used. They
are never used during songs, which have a full, rich sound
courtesy of F. Wade Russo’s direction of a very strong and
diverse ensemble. Neither does this concert version scrimp
on dance, and choreographer Tony Parise succinctly establishes
time and place and joy in his dances.
Rest assured the BSC gives us a Mame that flies. The
new redhead is none other than Sandy Duncan, who seems an
odd choice at first when one considers the adjectives usually
associated with her: pert, perky and feisty. But Duncan has
reinvented herself and has made Mame her own creation. Her
chief asset is her still-vital dancing talent: In giving us
a Mame who kicks up her heels, Duncan clears the stage for
a new enjoyable experience.
An accomplished cast surrounds Duncan, including Diane J.
Findlay in the role of Vera Charles, which she sings in a
fine bourbon-soaked baritone.
A trap of producing Mame lies in finding a child actor
who can play Patrick at age 10. But with Johnny Schaffer,
the potential liability turns to a grand accomplishment. While
he must be all of 12 years old, Schaffer is a professional
who doesn’t merely rely on his beguiling voice and presence
to melt his way into Mame’s heart. As the other man in her
life, Mark Jacoby is sublime in the pivotal role of Mame’s
Southern savior, Beauregard Burnside. The epitome of charm,
civility and compassion, Jacoby gets to sing the renowned
show-biz anthem, “Mame,” and he makes it so wildly infectious,
so cleanly ingratiating, that one wishes Herman had written
The biggest surprise is the Agnes Gooch of Joyce Chittick.
Conceived almost as a splayfooted cartoon with oversized thick
glasses and bowed legs for relatively easy comic relief, the
role can easily be overdone. Chittick imbues Gooch with such
soul and spontaneous attentiveness that Gooch not only becomes
real and empathetic, but also sexy.
Boyd missed the ocean liner earlier this season when she had
to scuttle her plans to produce Anything Goes as her
summer musical. It’s not a mistake she is making next summer.
Thus will West Side Story become one of the eagerly
awaited events of 2007—and if this production of Mame
is an example of how she can set feet to tapping in a “mere”
concert version, I have visions of fingers snapping when the
Jets and Sharks fill the excellent stage BSC has created on
Pittsfield’s west side.
Robert E. Sherwood, directed Ed. Lange
New York State Theatre Institute, through Oct. 14
It’s easy to see why beloved New York State Theatre Institute
director Ed. Lange wanted to stage the 70-year-old Idiot’s
Delight as his valedictory production before retiring
after 25 years of state-sponsored theater. Five-time Pulitzer
Prize-winning author Robert E. Sherwood’s 1936 antiwar comedy-drama
may not have the antic humor of the Marx Brothers’ antiwar
Duck Soup from 1933, or the characterization, dialogue,
and intellect of George Bernard Shaw’s 1920 antiwar Heartbreak
House, but Idiot’s Delight does afford a large
cast of 24 NYSTI veterans and newbie interns to try on lots
of elaborate period costumes (by Brent Griffin) as well as
lots of accents from different countries and galaxies.
There’s a huge, sprawling five-tiered beige-and-light-green
set (by Victor A. Becker) with a metal staircase stage right,
and huge, three-story-high sheers used as walls, which billow
when the wind machine is turned on for the final scene. There
are lights flashing and fog spewing as the sound of French
aircraft dropping retaliatory bombs is heard in the last scene.
There’s a 1930s musical production number with the all-American
bimbettes of “Les Blondes” in gold skirts that bounce as much
as the members of “Les Blondes” do. There are many exits and
entrances for the cast, lending a cameo-appearance feel to
Idiot’s Delight; no one is onstage long enough to wear
out his or her welcome. It’s a real director’s play.
Set in a sort-of Spartan Art Deco Motel 6 in the Italian Alps
overlooking France, Switzerland, and Austria, Idiot’s Delight
tells the “day in the life” of the guests trapped by the impending
war between Italy and France: fussy Italian hotel manager
Pittaluga (John Romeo); effete American entertainer Donald
(Eric Rose); tipsy Austrian waiter Dumpsey (Ron Komora); suave
Italian Air Force Capt. Locicero (David Bunce); officious
German Dr. Waldersee (Joel Aroeste); English newlyweds and
Noël Cowards-in-training Mr. and Mrs. Cherry (Cicilia Sedvall
and David Girard); American hustler Harry Van (Joe Quandt)
and his hustling revue girls Les Blondes (Shannon Johnson,
Jennifer Walczak, Tiffany McCormack, Allison Crystal, Alyson
Lange); impassioned French intellectual/labor organizer Quillery
(Joe Phillips); White Russian princess Irene (Mary Jane Hansen);
and Achille Weber (John McGuire), munitions manufacturer from
hell, or somewhere near Dick Cheney’s spawning grounds.
The characters come and go fretting about when they’ll be
able to leave this “deadly, boring dump,” as Donald says.
There’s a lot of declaring by the characters, and some laughs:
“I was born a Frenchman,” Quillery states, and Van’s response,
“I see you got over it,” gets the audience tittering. When
trading vodka shots with Mrs. Cherry and Irene, Mr. Cherry’s
squeal after each round gets laughs, as does his subsequent
pratfall. The numerous crossings, exits, and entrances keep
performers moving gingerly around the multi-tiered set, which
make for an apt thematic metaphor: They all seem to be walking
a tightrope, and you fear that one of them will be sent tumbling.
And when the Italian Air Force bombs Paris with “20,000 kilos
of bombs,” as Quillery states in a heated monologue insulting
the Italians, Idiot’s Delight’s serious undertone becomes
a clarion call. Director Lange is at his finest utilizing
McGuire’s sibilancy to underscore the capitalist Weber’s unctuousness:
“I am just the instrument of his divine justice,” McGuire’s
Weber beams as he recounts his philosophical justifications
for selling arms to any and all nations. “Ask yourself why
shouldn’t they die,” he says, sounding all the world like
a Halliburton spokesman on Fox News. That’s the moment which
makes it easy to see why Lange chose Idiot’s Delight
for his swan song, and it’s the moment that makes his retirement
easier to applaud.