When the curtain opens on the Players’ current production of Mame, you may be pleasantly surprised by the set, the costumes, and the general splashiness of the scene that introduces us to the free-spirited Mame Dennis—a character we’ve all come to know well over the years. The show boasts good production values, a fuller than usual ensemble, and some high spirits and lively energy.
As the opening night performance progressed, though, I found myself sometimes growing restless. While director-choreographer Bob Trisolini has staged the song-and-dance well (the Open a New Window number is a highlight, along with the title song), and while most of the cast has what it takes to hold our attention, Mame gradually began to feel to me like one number after another with no connective tissue to bind them together, and not much heart. The years have not been kind to some aspects of the book by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee (the show first bowed in 1966), especially when it comes to Act II and meeting those horrible Upsons.
But I’m getting ahead of myself; for those who somehow don’t know the oft-told story of Mame, it’s about a high-living, adventurous woman (played here by K.J. Hatfield, who also played the role for the Players 10 years ago), whose nonstop world of Roaring ’20s parties and exotic experiences is suddenly upended by the arrival of her young nephew, Patrick (Thomas Jaquith, a, likable presence), for whom she’s now the sole guardian. Nothing daunted, Mame proceeds to introduce Patrick to the eccentric cast of characters she pals around with, including hard-drinking actress Vera Charles (Terri Solomon) and her Japanese houseboy (Ren Pearson). Throw in Patrick’s repressed, religious nanny, Agnes Gooch (Susan Cole), and you’ve got a household of zanies.
The Depression hits Mame’s world hard, but, indomitable, she pursues a variety of careers to support her brood and eventually meets up with a Southern gentlemen (Peter Salefsky) who may be the answer to her problems. It’s all nonsense, really, but the show has survived for decades on the basis of its Jerry Herman tunes and its star power, most notably that of original Broadway Mame Angela Lansbury.
Hatfield has a lot of verve as Mame, and she’s a polished performer who never misses a beat in a role that requires her to be onstage almost all the time. She’s well matched with Solomon as “bosom buddy” Vera; and Cole as Gooch has the right comedic stuff, although she was hampered with a terrible cold on opening night (her songs were performed by another actress offstage while she lip synched).
But in general the show, already broad by nature, feels even broader and showier here, with everyone emoting to the highest level. And to me the story’s biggest fault line, the inexplicable attraction between the older Patrick (Steve Jaquith) and the über-WASPy Gloria Upson (Kathryn Ohrenstein Parks), just splits wider and wider every time I see the show.
That’s not to say this Mame can’t be enjoyed at one level of musical comedy entertainment. To me, it’s a big, beautifully decorated package that’s empty inside. But I imagine most audiences will be drawn to the wrappings.
Mame continues at the Players through Dec. 19. For tickets call 365-2494 or go to theplayers.org.