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CELEBRATION OF FAMILY: Despite sound issues, ‘Mame’ is campy fun and with a lot of heart

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“Mame” truly celebrates family in its many forms at the holidays.

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Thalian Association offers a slightly different take on the holiday show this year: “Mame,” the musical adaptation of “Auntie Mame,” on the Main Stage of Thalian Hall. Originally published as a novel in 1955, “Auntie Mame” took the country by storm and spent 112 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List.

BRASSY AND SASSY: The lead role will be performed by newcomer Jamie Schraff in Thalian Association’s latest production, “Mame.” Photo, courtesy of Thalian Association

BRASSY AND SASSY: The lead role will be performed by newcomer Jamie Schraff in Thalian Association’s latest production, “Mame.” Photo, courtesy of Thalian Association

In 1956, fresh from the success of “Inherit The Wind,” the writing team of Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee adapted the novel for the stage, and then in 1958 they did the film. Both starred Rosalind Russell, the woman who epitomizes Auntie Mame in every way. Russell garnered multiple awards and nominations for the role both on stage and film. Eight years later, Jerry Herman added a musical score to Lawrence and Lee’s adaptation and “Mame” opened on Broadway as a musical starring Angela Lansbury in the title role.

An ill-fated film adaptation with Lucille Ball followed some years later and is perhaps best forgotten. The musical adaptation is—much like Herman’s other big success, “Hello Dolly!”—a big ensemble piece. It revolves around a big-hearted, big-spirited woman and the excitement she brings to the world around her.

Adapting a piece across artistic genres requires the understanding that the conventions of one mode do not work for another. The novel is written sort of like Reader’s Digest vignettes that recount the mad-cap adventures of a crazy aunt. The play and film (which are my favorite) really flesh out the plot arc about Auntie Mame’s nephew, Patrick, and his upbringing. The musical must work within the constraints of the form, and therefore consolidates some of the characters and the action. 

On stage, the show opens in Manhattan in the late 1920’s, with Agnes Gooch (Katie Vilecco) delivering the recently orphaned young Patrick Denis (Quinn Gonzalez) to his new guardian, Auntie Mame (Jamie Schraff).  By Gooch’s Midwestern spinster standards, Manhattan is clearly a den of inequity, as she explains in the number “St. Bridget,” a prayer for protection and guidance. It is our first indication that Vilecco and Gonzaelz both have great comedic delivery.  Things go from bad to worse when they finally find number 3 Beekman Place, only to discover a bootlegger-sponsored cocktail party in full swing during the Prohibition Era. Gore Vidal once commented that every woman he knew from Anias Nin to his mother claimed to be the inspiration for Auntie Mame. There is a reason why: She’s glamorous, the life of every party and on the right side of history and philanthropy. Her perfect foil is Dwight Babcock (Stuart Pike), of the Knickerbocker Bank, who has been appointed Patrick’s trustee. Thus begins a war for Patrick’s soul: Will he be a sheltered, restricted, racist, anti-Semitic, country club banker, or will he be a free-thinking artist, with a love of life and friends across the spectrum of humanity? 

Along the way the stock market crash of 1929 wipes out Mame’s financial resources and the confirmed bachelorette meets the man of her dreams, Beauregard Jackson Picket Burnside (Bob Workman). Truly, the hunt scene at Peckerwood (Beau’s Plantation) is one of my favorites.

Terry Collins’ sets for the entire show are incredible, but his rendition of the lovely antebellum mansion and grounds is really breathtaking. The song “Mame” was probably great, too, but unfortunately I couldn’t hear most of it during my attendance. Actually, the sound problems ended up being the major theme of the evening. Many of the principals weren’t using mics (Penny Kohut as Vera Charles seemed to be the only person prepared to project regardless of the soundman’s plans). Those who were wearing them suffered from not having them turned on for many of their funnier lines. More so, some mics were left on back stage. The audience got treated to interesting backstage conversation and lots of set-moving sound effects amplified through the theatre. It really drowned out much of what was supposed to be happening onstage.

I know this show and, thankfully, almost by heart. But for others who did not, well, they likely couldn’t follow the jokes, meaning a lot was missing from the dialogue. The performers and audience really deserve better.

Sound problems aside: Is the show fun? Does it swell with joie de vivre? Is Mame the classiest, most glamorous and amazing woman we’ve ever met? Do we all want to be her? Well, the answers are a decided yes and no.  Debbie Scheu’s costumes are eye candy. At the curtain speech Thalian’s artistic director, David Loudermilk, described the show as “ginormous”—and he wasn’t kidding. It has a big cast, lots of sets and wonderful costumes.  Visually, it is a feast. The big ensemble song-and-dance numbers are tremendously fun.  There are some wonderful performances, especially from Quinn Gonzalez as Young Patrick and Katie Vilecco as Agnes Gooch. Both got deserved show-stopping ovation for “Gooch’s Song” in Act Two. 

Perhaps Chris Brown as Mother Burnside gave my favorite cameo appearance. Brown manages to exude an awfulness and command of an extended family that must be seen to be understood. Jared Jones as the older Patrick also is noteworthy, along with his unexpected sidekick, Jonathan Maultsby.

In spite of sound troubles, the man next to me had a great night singing along with the performers (and at times filling in when we couldn’t hear the stage). And that’s what this show is about: fun—fun with life, fun with friends, fun and joy in all guises. Herman’s score captures that, and Lawrence and Lee make Auntie Mame one of the first and truly surprising icons of feminism.

Though the script is firmly fixed in specific moments in the 20th century, much of what Patrick struggles to understand as he grows up are questions that still resonate today.  How do we define family? Who do we choose to include in our lives? What do we gain and lose by these choices? What are we missing because we are scared to meet someone new and try something that might scare us—whether it is pickled python for hors d’oeuvre or enjoying modern dance? Hopefully, by this weekend, the sound issues are worked out so lots of people will take their kids to enjoy this campy, joyous ‘60s musical.  It truly celebrates family in its many forms at the holidays.

December 10-20, 7:30 p.m., Thurs.-Sat.; 3 p.m., Sun.
Tickets: $15-$30
Thalian Hall
310 Chestnut St.

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