Theater Review: MAME (Musical Theatre Guild)

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by Samuel Garza Bernstein on September 24, 2018

in Theater-Los Angeles


The chief pleasure in Musical Theatre Guild’s presentation of Mame at the Alex Theatre is hearing the music, full-out, as written, unencumbered, and unembellished. I mean that in the best sense. Jerry Herman’s score is lush and lovely, and it requires no reinvention. In the hands of musical director Cassie Nickols and director Lewis Wilkenfeld, there is little evidence of MTG’s scant 25-hour rehearsal schedule allowed under the Actors Equity contract for a staged concert. The music is queen.

As the title character, Kelly Lester is rather more corporeal than some of the leading ladies who have tackled the role. She is sexy and down to earth, yet has a sweet, motherly chemistry with Travis Burnett as young Patrick, who sings with winsome clarity. Their version of “My Best Girl” is lovely and haunting, and Ms. Lester finds true pathos in “If He Walked into My Life,” approaching it with a great deal of vocal control while making it feel emotionally unrestrained. She also can hold a dazzling smile while almost twenty people sing “Mame” at her before intermission. That is no small feat.

Melissa Fahn as Agnes Gooch stops the show with “Gooch’s Song,” absolutely stealing our hearts with her depth of emotion, humor, and spectacular pipes. That she is beautiful under the drab housecoat and horn-rimmed glasses may be a theatrical trope as old as time, but Ms. Fahn is so vital and gifted it feels positively fresh. Though a relatively small character, she stays in your thoughts. (The musical cuts out the character of the writer Bryan O’Banyon, the roguish father of Agnes’s child, so one of the things we wonder about is who gets her pregnant and how did that come about.)

As Mame’s best pal Vera Charles, Barbara Carlton Heart does a fantastic drunk without ever getting sloppy or over the top. One of my favorite moments of the evening is her droll rendition of “The Moon Song,” where, in a nod to the musty light operettas of the Teens and Twenties, Vera plays a “lady astronomer” who discovers that the Man in the Moon is a Miss. It is every bit as silly as it sounds.

Choreographer Heather Castillo has the cast surrounding Ms. Heart giddily wave bits of material around, suggesting moonbeams or billowing clouds or some such nonsense. It is a knowing moment of meta self-awareness that works. The audience enjoys it because it is so low rent and tongue in cheek.

Another pleasure of this kind of staged concert performance is seeing how the cast responds to inevitable mishaps. At one point, as Ms. Lister waited for Ms. Heart to enter from one side of the stage, we could hear the frazzled Ms. Heart whispering on her live microphone, “I’m on the wrong side!” Trouper Glenn Rosenblum (playing Lindsay Woolsey) gave a subtle wink to the audience while covering for the delay as we waited breathlessly to see what would happen.

Pamela Hamill does a nice turn as Mother Burnside in the Georgia sequence, Will Collyer has a glorious tenor, soaring in the second act reprise of “My Best Girl,” and Brent Schindele is a perfect Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside. A few of the featured roles are played too broadly for my taste, particularly Nikki Elena Spies as Gloria Upson, who makes the character more clown than upper-class bigot.

It’s funny. Mame is one of those characters that has seeped so deeply into the collective consciousness, that it only occurs to me now that I have never seen a full production of the stage musical. I thought I had, between variety and awards show numbers (there was a Broadway revival in the 1990s) and repeated viewings of the film Auntie Mame starring Rosalind Russell, plus reading the book, and biographies of its author Patrick Dennis, and my early childhood memories of the film with Lucille Ball.

But no, this is actually my first time with the whole stage show, all the songs, and all the dialogue. I’m a big fan of Jerry Herman, and I regard Hello, Dolly! as a vastly underrated work. Mame is perhaps not as emotionally involving. In some ways, I imagine it was considered fairly old-fashioned even when it premiered in 1966. It is a star vehicle, a kind of show that is rarely written anymore, where, inevitably, someone glamorous comes down a set of fabulous stairs with everyone singing his or her (mostly her) praises. I often wish I had been alive to see it all in its heyday, to experience the great star personalities that dominated Broadway in the first half of the Twentieth Century, and maybe a few decades beyond, into the 1970s.

That MTG exists to remind us of that world (and others, they sometimes produce much newer work) is a testament to its value, and I for one am grateful. And for the record, though the film of Mame with Lucille Ball was a certified and much-derided bomb, I don’t remember whether I thought it was good or bad. I was too young to have a critical reaction. But its blinding glamour was everything this little gay boy dreamed about becoming, and I remember that feeling vividly. That I did not become Mame when I grew up is one of my chief regrets in life.

photos by Gordon Goodman

Musical Theatre Guild
Alex Theatre | 216 Brand Blvd. in Glendale
played September 23, 2018
for future shows, call 818.243.2539 or visit MTG

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