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Quite a dame: Duncan in Mame at Barrington Stage Company

An Extravagant Success

By Ralph Hammann


Book 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 Julianne Boyd

Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, Mass., through Oct. 15

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 more verses.

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.

War Is Heck

Idiot’s Delight

By 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.

— James Yeara


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