Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August, 2002
Mame Dennis must be up there in the Bawdy Broads Afterlife laughing with delight at the lengthy run her nephew’s tales of her have had. Patrick Dennis became an overnight sensation when his memoir Auntie Mame was first published in 1955. Considered risqué at the time, the book sold over two million copies and reigned on the New York Times bestseller list for 112 weeks. It was made into a wildly popular play and then a film starring Rosalind Russell, followed by a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical version with Angela Lansbury, which Hollywood transformed into a dismal movie musical with Lucille Ball. The book is written as a series of magazine articles, and that episodic quality carries over all the way to the stage musical. Mame is a great show for a large company like the Mac-Haydn to tackle because there are colorful characters to meet in each segment of Mame’s life which provide ample acting opportunities for all and sundry, and, with the exception of Megan Midkiff’s annoyingly over-the-top portrayal of Gloria Upson, everyone comports themselves with style and grace.
Kelly Jo Eldredge brings the charm and joie de vivre of the title role to life while avoiding Mame’s supposed sophistication. The real Auntie Mame may have been sophisticated as all get-out, but this story is told through a child’s eyes and Eldredge only raises the bar of sophistication as high as a child can see.
Sarah Rex has a ball as the ever-tipsy Vera Charles, and Jim Kidd enjoys his brief moment in the spotlight singing the title song as Mame’s beloved but ill-fated husband Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside. I enjoyed Margaret Spirito as Beau’s honey-wouldn’t-melt-in-her-mouth jilted southern fiancée Sally Cato.
I saw Patrick Franklin of Loudonville as young Patrick, and therefore cannot comment on the performance of the other young actor Darrin French of Philmont. Franklin was a tiny bit tentative and deliberate in his attempts at acting, but sang sweetly with open enjoyment. I was impressed when I could hear him above the whole ensemble during the hunt number. Brian Laycock assumes the role of the older Patrick in Act II. Like most teenagers, Patrick is embarrassed by and rebelling against his parental unit, and since Mame is such a rebel herself Patrick’s adolescent turmoil draws him into the arms of the most nauseatingly conservative branch of American society. Laycock does a nice job of transforming the character without making it seem that Patrick has abandoned his “best girl” completely.
The Mac-Haydn has a real gem in Tiffany Thornton, a young woman capable of looking absolutely gorgeous and willing to look absolutely ridiculous. After two glamorous turns this season in the title role of Naughty Marietta, and as Martha Jefferson in 1776, Thornton showed her comic side in Crazy for You, and now steals the show as the homely, befuddled nanny/secretary Agnes Gooch. Her face a perfect replica of Ruth Buzzi’s Gladys Ormphby, Thornton brings down the house when her attempt to lead the wild and free life Mame advocates produces an unexpected complication.
Once again, the costumes are amazing. Designer Jimm Halliday has created a seemingly endless parade of glamorous togs for Eldredge, and everyone else looks pretty darned swank as well. I just loved the brilliant pastel palette Halliday concocted for the ensemble in the number That’s How Young I Feel.
But why, oh why has hair and wig stylist Kathleen Arcoraci saddled Eldredge with that horrible orange sherbet colored wig for so much of the middle of the show? I fear it is a misguided homage to Lucille Ball, a woman I admire greatly but not for her performance in Mame. Let us retire Ball’s adopted hair color the way we retire the number worn by a great ballplayer. Only Ball could get away with that hair, and even she looked better in black and white than in technicolor. From her headshot in the lobby Eldredge appears to possess a perfectly fine head of hair, and Arcoraci has come up with some very nice looking wigs for the beginning and end of the show. If she must be a redhead, let Eldredge wear that handsome dark red number she wore in the last scenes and send the sherbet colored one to the ice cream factory where it belongs.
In a brief side note, I was fascinated to learn that Patrick Dennis, one of the most successful and now most underrated humor writers of the mid-20th century, was actually Edward Everett Tanner III (1921-1976), and that he ended his life in obscurity having assumed a new name and a new identity as the butler of McDonald’s hamburger mogul Ray Kroc. You can read about his life in a newly published book called Uncle Mame.
Mame runs through August 18 at the Mac-Haydn Theatre on Rt. 203 in Chatham, NY. The show runs two hours and forty five minutes with one intermission. There is some salty language (mostly uttered by young Patrick) but only the most puritanical would not find “Mame” suitable for the whole family. Call the box office at 518-392-9292 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2002