Theater

This 'Mame' Needs to Let Her Hair Down

Not quite sensational: Christine Baranski brings a good voice and earnest effort to the title role of the Kennedy Center's big-cast production.
Not quite sensational: Christine Baranski brings a good voice and earnest effort to the title role of the Kennedy Center's big-cast production. (By Joan Marcus -- The Kennedy Center)

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By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 2, 2006

Christine Baranski must be a good egg. That, anyway, is the soldiering-on vibe she radiates as she struts and high-kicks, chin out and shoulders back, in the workmanlike revival of "Mame" that opened last night at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater.

The earnest wake she creates sets the rhythm for the genial evening that director Eric Schaeffer rolls out. The fey variety of Mame she conjures up comes across as a little puckered at times, what with that hoity-toity accent she puts on and all. And let's face it, the Baranski you might love best -- from TV's "Cybill," as well as numerous stage appearances -- usually hits her stride only after that sour rind of lemon has been added to her second vodka.

The scuttlebutt is that Broadway has been keeping an eye on this "Mame," a chummy musical relic from 1966 that has not been seen in New York since an ill-fated revival in 1983 with its original star, Angela Lansbury. Should a transfer occur, it would be huge validation for the Kennedy Center, which four years ago gave Baranski a big boost by casting her in "Sweeney Todd" as part of its Sondheim Celebration.

Baranski, though, would have to find another gear, or maybe an earthier approach, if such a move were to work. She's in the ballpark vocally, but she does not yet make Mame totally her own. (The tight schedule at the Kennedy Center -- the production is allowed only a handful of performances before reviewers are invited -- means she's had precious little time to settle into a monster of a role.) Her work isn't sufficiently take-charge; it exposes us to the gifts of a skilled actress rather than a star.

And "Mame," with its sunny score of piano-bar favorites by Jerry Herman, is nothing if not a vehicle for a star. Based on the play "Auntie Mame," which was based on the novel by Patrick Dennis, "Mame" belongs in that subset of shows -- "Funny Girl" and Herman's own "Hello, Dolly!" among them -- that rise and fall on the single name above the title.

The challenge for the star of "Mame" is particularly steep, because the work is something short of classic. As articulated by Mame, the musical's credo is "Life's a banquet!" Yet the platter of delicacies it circulates comes from an outdated kitchen.

Given some of the musical's constraints -- particularly as they pertain to a book for the show that becomes ever more transparent and high-handed -- Schaeffer and his team do a more than respectable job of maximizing the show's assets. The choreography by Warren Carlyle has real verve, and leggy Baranski proves to be a graceful hoofer. A couple of numbers in Mame's Manhattan flat are too scattershot -- your eye never knows where to go -- but the crucial first-act finale, in which Mame's enchanted Georgia hosts a cakewalk to the show's title anthem, is delightful.

Part of the pleasure is the luxurious size of the ensemble. (I counted 22 dancers in the "Mame" number.) With the chronic underpopulation of musicals nowadays, the assembling of this many performers on the stage itself can raise goose bumps.

Money's been spent -- the Kennedy Center says $5 million -- and happily, you can practically hear the ka-ching and see the dollar signs. The 22-piece orchestra conducted by James Moore gives the score a rich, round, cast-album sound. Other vibrant contributions are sewn up in Gregg Barnes's drop-dead costumes, designs evoking slinky '30s fashion. Model-thin Baranski alone wears 16 of them, trimmed in fur and awash in style. Designer Walt Spangler's rendering of a white-columned Southern plantation house is a luxe addition, although the revolving tower of stairs that dominates Mame's flat proves an ungainly centerpiece. (A cool giant mobile, trotted out by Spangler late in the show, redeems that particular set.)

The investment extends, too, to the Broadway-caliber cast, whose strongest members include a very funny Harriet Harris, as Mame's dipsomaniac best friend, the pretentious actress Vera Charles. Harris navigates boozy putdowns as expertly as she does "The Moon Song," a slapstick production number.

Harrison Chad is fine as young Patrick, the nephew Mame takes under her wing. The solid Jeff McCarthy puts in an all-too-brief appearance as Beauregard, a Dixie fat cat who falls for Mame after her stock holdings go south in the crash of '29.

Vivacious Emily Skinner, on the other hand, is used to less than optimum advantage as Agnes Gooch, the sad sack who takes Mame's advice to open a new window far too literally. Gooch's transformation from frump to exhibitionist is too abrupt and two degrees too vulgar. Schaeffer has her looking at one moment as if she's ready for the convent, and the next, for a spread in a Victoria's Secret catalogue.

"Mame" is a picaresque portrait of an exotic optimist who battles against intolerance and conformity, two themes that specially engaged the theater in the 1960s. Patrick is dropped into Mame's privileged life, and despite all the progressive ideas in which she schools him, she has to watch in horror as he grows up enamored of bigoted white-bread Americana, and the kind of people who don't want Jews or blacks next door. (The adult Patrick is played by the appealing Max von Essen.)

In the show, cosmopolitan values are linked to an ACLU-inspired idealism; cynicism in this Manhattan is reserved for the likes of Vera (read: embittered and blotto). Herman, a softie if there ever was one, composed a relentlessly upbeat score for his heroine, who croons enough morale-raisers to fill an entire USO program: "It's Today," "We Need a Little Christmas," "Open a New Window." By the time Mame hikes up her skirt to boogie to "That's How Young I Feel," we've had about all the encouragement we can take.

The deck is stacked so heavily in Mame's favor that the only possible role the show allots us is as her personal cheering section. But if we're going to root for her on her terms, then she's got to meet ours: We want to be able to love our Mame, and we want her to be a star. Please, Ms. Baranski: Relax and be a star.

Mame, music and lyrics by Jerry Herman, book by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Lighting, Ken Billington; sound, Peter Hylenski. With Ed Dixon, Michael L. Forrest, Mary Stout, Harry A. Winter, Ruth Gottschall. About 2 hours 45 minutes. Through July 2 at the Kennedy Center. Call 202-467-4600 or visit http://www.kennedy-center.org .


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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