Friday, September 28, 2007

TLT breathes life into dated 'Mame'

published in The News Tribune, September 28, 2007

The comic play "Auntie Mame" by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee has had an amazing history.

Based on the best-selling book by Patrick Dennis, it was the source of a Broadway play and a movie in the 1950s, both starring Rosalind Russell, and a 1966 musical starring Angela Lansbury. Then, in 1974, the musical version was made into a film starring Lucille Ball, Beatrice Arthur and Robert Preston. And in the 33 years since, both musical and nonmusical versions have been mainstays in community theaters throughout the country.

Tacoma Little Theatre is doing the original, nonmusical version.

I can see why "Auntie Mame" has been so popular. Attribute it to the lead character's enduring spirit; she's the woman we all want to grow into as we get older, a rebel who views life as a banquet and relishes every bite.

From a critical point of view, I cannot help but see it as dated and not particularly well written. Even with Mame's wonderfully rebellious spirit and thoroughly despicable bad guys in the persons of Claude and Doris Upson and the hateful banker, Dwight Babcock, it is hard to overcome comic dialogue that is only sporadically funny and a major turning point in the plot that is weak. (Mame's nephew Patrick has a major character change without sufficient motivation.)

Despite these shortcomings, the cast and crew at Tacoma Little Theatre manage to bring about an uplifting evening of entertainment. The large and complicated sets, including numerous revolves and minor scene changes, are well done. The constantly changing modern art in Mame's Beekman Place apartment, which is referred to as wallpaper but is actually more like large paintings, is particularly effective in indicating passing time – especially the pseudo Picasso and the faceted lion painting. Credit Henry Loughman and his crew for a job well done on the sets.

And the costumes by David Jerome are wonderful.

Mame is a theatrical, wealthy eccentric who spits in the face of authority and surrounds herself with artists and writers and actors, and household servants who are as eccentric as she is. Into her gay and devil-may-care life comes her young nephew Patrick Dennis, who becomes her ward when his father dies. Patrick brings out Mame's tender side as she welcomes him with open arms and an equally open heart, and teaches him to embrace her belief that life is a banquet.

Even losing everything in the stock market crash of 1929 fails to dampen Mame's spirit; poverty is just another adventure for her. During these years she takes on and is fired from a series of mundane jobs and then marries a wealthy Southerner named Beauregard Burnside. Together they embark on a series of adventures while Patrick is in boarding school.

Sharry O'Hara seems born for the role of Mame, and she dives into the part with gusto. If anything, however, I wish she were even more flamboyant. Young Patrick is played by Caleb Wilkerson, an accomplished child actor who handles subtle emotional changes like a pro as shy Patrick throws himself wholeheartedly into Mame's adventurous life.

But when Patrick grows up to be a serious young man (played by Kody Bringman), he tosses aside everything he has learned from Mame when he becomes engaged to boorish socialite Gloria Upson (Christina Leamer).

The cast is large, with almost too many supporting characters to keep track of. A number of supporting cast members are outstanding. Most notable are Brittany Henderson as Agnes Gooch, the most outlandish comic character in the play, and Carol Richmond as Mame's actress friend Vera Charles. Also doing a good job in small roles are Jay Iseli as the mean-spirited and puritanical Babcock, Michael O'Hara as Burnside (despite a Southern accent that would make Gomer Pyle sound like a New Englander), and Lynn Geyer as Burnside's imperious but loving mother.

It's a long play. We were told that it runs two hours and 35 minutes. Counting intermission, it is much closer to three hours. I laughed a little; most of the audience laughed a lot more the night I attended. Perhaps they are less jaded than I.

WHEN: 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Oct. 7; ASL performance, Oct. 5
WHERE: Tacoma Little Theatre, 210 N. I St., Tacoma
TICKETS: $20 general admission, $18 seniors and military, $16 children younger than 12
INFORMATION: 253-272-2281,

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