Toward the end of the second act, Jean Cantrell, who plays Mame in The Arlington Players' production of the legendary Broadway musical of the same name, stands alone on the bare stage and belts out the bittersweet "If He Walked Into My Life." It's a movingly powerful moment, delivering the promise of this bursting-with-life musical.
And that's the problem. In a play with a multitude of magnificent moments like a tree ripe for the picking, this payoff comes too late. I'm still confused as to how TAP has managed to squash the energetic "Mame," rendering it bland, workmanlike and slightly boring.
It can't be the play, with music and lyrics by another Broadway legend, Jerry Herman, which played more than 1,500 times on Broadway when it opened in 1966 with Angela Lansbury in the lead. "Mame" is based on the life and times of Mame Dennis, a bodacious woman in the style of Dolly in "Hello Dolly," Tess Harding in "Woman of the Year" and Fanny Brice in "Funny Girl." She is an all-night (and all-day) party of the highest order.
Her life is only slightly interrupted by the appearance of her orphaned nephew Patrick, who comes to live with her at 3 Beekman Place in New York City. With Patrick as her charge, she sets to teaching him to live with a love -- lust, really -- for life. The rest of the play is just an extension of this loopy philosophy as Mame faces obstacles and, inevitably, conquers them. Not terrifically deep, but with spry, memorable songs such as "Open a New Window," "We Need a Little Christmas," "Bosom Buddies" and "My Best Girl," this is what makes musical theater such a favorite of audiences.
And it's not the production. The thoroughly professional theater group has not stinted on costumes, set or lighting. There is a live orchestra, and the theater is luxurious. The acting and singing are solid, with no line problems, woodenness or off-key voices.
What, then, is wrong? It's hard to put a finger on it, but traces of the problem are glimpsed from the first number, "It's Today," a rousing ensemble song about living for the moment. While everything looks good, there is a curious lack of energy and oomph. At times I could hardly hear these wonderful words and could not feel the excitement that they should inspire. The players and director F.C. Wadas, it seems, are relying too heavily on the play to carry them.
The burden for this integral ingredient lies squarely on the shoulders of Cantrell's Mame. When the cast sings the title song to her, declaring, "You came, you saw, you conquered/And absolutely nothing is the same," it is a must that this has got to be some dame. While Cantrell has a polished voice and a sweet manner on stage, I was never sure that this woman was so special. Nice, maybe; a lollapalooza, no.
The other important part is the loving bond between Patrick and Mame. Patrick is played by two performers. Patrick at 10, played by a young girl, A.N. Newstead, is a child actor nightmare, all hammy mannerisms and cutesy grins. To be fair, Newstead has a winning voice, but she loses points for blatant overacting. And Tom Harris' older Patrick is too old for his role.
Spirit is an elusive thing, but without it theater can be as passive as watching a movie. A cornucopia of spirit is surely in the generous "Mame," and The Arlington Players would do well to tap it.
The play runs tomorrow and Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Thomas Jefferson Community Theater, 125 S. Glebe Rd., Arlington.