"Mame" not so Inspirational
By David A. Rosenberg
Let’s talk about the sorry state of the Broadway musical. What a disastrous season this has been for new tuners, from bottom-feeders like “Leap of Faith” and “Ghost” all the way up the shaky ladder to the sole decent offering, “Once” (which is of Irish origins, no less). Only screaming decibel levels keep customers awake, jolting them upright for obligatory standing ovations.
Why are we so bereft? To quote a Stephen Sondheim lyric, “Where is style? Where is skill? Where is passion in the art? Where’s craft?” Luckily, a revival of this composer’s 1971 “Follies,” along with a re-invented “Porgy and Bess,” gave glimpses of what used to be. With strong books and a respect for language, both came from a tradition of shared culture and an emphasis on substance,
Of four musicals still packing them in -- “The Phantom of the Opera,” “The Lion King,” “Wicked,” “The Book of Mormon” -- only the latter is a throwback to character-driven shows. The others, for all their considerable skills, rely on visual effects.
For at least some of this depressing situation, blame the microphone which, like social media, puts a mechanical gap between performer and audience. Take “The Lion King.” According to Mark N. Grant, in his “The Rise and Fall of the Broadway Musical,” that show “has more than 80 loudspeakers and 35 performers with body mikes.”
At times, actors simply cannot hear one another. The orchestra is often buried underneath the stage or, even, playing from a different location, effectively killing the “live” sound so essential to theater, Conductors are viewed on TV monitors fastened to the balcony rail. (Turn around and look.)
“The Broadway musical theater lost its magic at exactly the point when stagers replaced writers” in creating shows, says Grant, who dubs the results as “McMusicals.” Fast fleeing is the integrated tuner, where songs and dances advance the story. Of course that approach didn’t always work, either, as witness “Mack and Mabel,” which even a great Jerry Herman score couldn’t save.
One Herman success, “Mame,” opened at the end of the Golden Age of Musicals, which lasted roughly from 1927 to 1966. Now playing at Goodspeed in a revival that will do zero to enhance its reputation, the show was a huge hit, lasting a whopping 1,508 performances. With a literate libretto by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee (no, not that one) and wonderful Herman songs, it jump-started the stage career of Angela Lansbury.
Sad to say, it’s not likely to do the same for Louise Pitre who, under Ray Roderick’s wandering direction, here plays a normalized Mame Dennis. “You’re a loving woman, Miss Dennis,” says one character. “You’re peculiar but loving.”
Pitre has the “loving” part down but doesn’t put a finger on the “peculiar.” Her affection for her orphaned nephew is palpable: her regretful 11 o’clock number, “If He Walked Into My Life,” is a highlight. But she glides by Mame’s unique eccentricities and unconventionality.
And do we really need those blasted blasting microphones in a house the size of Goodspeed? Goodbye, charm. Welcome, raucousness.
James Youmans’ scenery is obtrusive, especially cramping the Act One finale. Charlie Morrison’s lighting is harsh and, although the gifted Gregg Barnes’ costumes are fetching, his riding outfit for Mame is a mistake. Vince Pesce’s choreography is, well, spirited.
Ah, wait, there are virtues. Kirsten Wyatt’s Agnes Gooch is a hoot, managing to be both funny and touching. Eli Baker is enormously appealing as 10-year-old Patrick, avoiding the cutes. Herman’s terrific score is intact, played with élan by the orchestra under Michael O’Flaherty’s dynamic conducting.
The title song praises Mame as “inspirational” and “sensational.” Hardly.