Chicago Theatre Review
Life is a Banquet
Mame – Light Opera Works
In this much welcome Chicago revival of Jerry Herman’s beloved 1966 musical, the old adage, “if it ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it” comes to mind. Rudy Hogenmiller’s splashy, vibrant production of this musical comedy, based upon the chart-busting 1955 novel, doesn’t break new ground or offer any surprises to fans of this show. But this solid, classic book musical about a entertaining, eccentric aunt is everything audiences have come to expect from this company, omitting nothing and remaining true to the original Broadway production.
In 1955 Patrick Dennis became a household name as the author of a runaway, bestselling, Auntie Mame, an hilarious novel based on his own unconventional, real-life Aunt Marion. It featured an orphaned younger version of himself who’s left in the care of his only living relative, his father’s bohemian Manhattanite sister, Mame Dennis. Their zany adventures, beginning during the Roaring Twenties and continuing through the Depression and into the 1950’s, feature a bizarre assortment of wild, supporting characters, as well.
The bestseller was adapted into a successful Broadway comedy the following year and in 1958 it was turned into a popular film, starring Rosalind Russell. Ten years later Jerry Herman followed up his hit, “Hello Dolly,” with this highly popular musical version of the comedy. It starred Angela Lansbury, in the title role, and featured Bea Arthur, as Vera Charles and Jane Connell, as Agnes Gooch. Nominated for eight Tony Awards, the show took home three, and eventually spawned a very successful National Tour.
Rudy Hogenmiller’s production is almost like stepping back in time to the Golden Age of Broadway. It’s a solid, old-fashioned production, featuring a cast of talented performers, assisted by a sterling support team and a crew of gifted designers. The production is backed by Roger L. Bingaman’s reliable, full, rich-sounding 26-member pit orchestra. Scenic Designer Adam Veness and Lighting Designer Andrew H. Meyers have worked together to create a sparkling, colorful, constantly changing environment on which Hogenmiller and Clayton Cross have staged and choreographed their production. Costumes and hair and makeup by Robert S. Kuhn and Miguel Perez complete the dazzling look of a show that spans four decades.
In the starring role of Auntie Mame, Nancy Hays is terrific. Her performance is reminiscent of Celeste Holm or Jane Morgan, two of the luminous actresses who succeeded Lansbury on Broadway and/or played the title role on tour. Ms. Hays, who was seen last year as Judy Garland in “The Boy From Oz,” has a gorgeous, velvety voice and a captivating smile. Graceful and svelte in her every move, Hays’ only weakness is that her portrayal is always presentational. Her chemistry with her costars is slight and feels artificial. This is particularly true in her scenes with Zachary Scott Fewkes, who’s terrific as Young Patrick, playing his part with so much heartbreaking honesty and determination. As a singer and dancer, Ms. Hays is sensational, belting out brassy tunes like “It’s Today,” “Open a New Window,” “That’s How Young I Feel” and, in her finest, most truthful moment, the soul-searching torch song, “If He Walked into My Life.” However, particularly in her scenes with her little love, Ms. Hays needs to find more connection to bring some truthfulness and sincerity to her portrayal.
Mary Robin Roth, a treat in any role she undertakes, is simply perfect as the booze-swilling, over-the-top theatrical diva, Vera Charles. While her “Moon Song” is very funny, her delightful duet with Hays that’s become an ode to bitchiness, “Bosom Buddies,” is a show-stopper. Alicia Berneche attacks the role of nerdy Agnes Gooch with passion and panache. The actress opens the show with a fervent hymn to “St. Bridget,” blending nicely with young Mr. Fewkes in their comic plea for sanctuary from the evils of New York City. Little does Miss Gooch know what she’s in for after becoming Mame’s personal assistant, later wowing the audience in Act II with “Gooch’s Song.” And always a treat for the ear is Chicago’s talented musical treasure, Justin Adair. Last seen as Lt. Cable in “South Pacific,” he’s magnificent as Older Patrick, caressing his ballad, “My Best Girl,” with heartfelt earnestness and an angelic voice.
Here is a production, complete with a vibrantly talented ensemble, that would make Jerry Herman grin with pride. It’s a bright, colorful, optimistic show brimming with broad characters, sparkling humor and peppered with moments of heart and truthfulness. While not groundbreaking, this production is solid, competent and faithful to the original Broadway hit. Mame’s credo that “Life is a banquet, and most poor sons-a-bitches are starving to death” is simply her brash way of advising audiences to live for today. And in its all-too-brief Evanston run, the banquet is hot and awaiting eager new audiences, hungry to fill their plates with musical merriment from a bygone age.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented August 20-28 by Light Opera Works (to be renamed Musical Theatre Works in 2017) at Cahn Auditorium, 600 Emerson Street, Evanston, IL.
Tickets are available by calling 847-920-5360 or by going to www.LightOperaWorks.com.
Additional information about this and other fine area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com