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In 1966, when Angela Lansbury brought Mame to Broadway, critics complained that she lacked the sharpness of Rosalind Russell, the much beloved nonsinging Auntie Mame of a decade earlier. But Lansbury wasn’t a powerhouse personality at the time; she just looks like one in retrospect. And even she couldn’t live up to the Lansbury mystique when the show was unsuccessfully revived in the ’80s. So if you’ve heard that Christine Baranski is something less than the Mame of everybody’s dreams, don’t believe it. Dreams, especially where stars are concerned, can be tricky. Almost as tricky as memories.
As she established in that other iconic Lansbury role in Sweeney Todd a couple of years back, Baranski has the musical-comedy goods—looks, smarts, voice, gams, timing to die for—but she also has that indefinable something extra that can make a performer seem larger-than-life and ever-in-close-up. There’s wattage enough in that headlamp smile of hers to light up three Big Lady musicals, and even if the offstage-only-for-costume-changes Mame Dennis is a real mother of a role—call her the Auntie Courage of musical comedy—Baranski’s clearly up to it. She needs to start treating Jerry Herman’s celebration of the glories of unorthodox child-rearing as a cakewalk rather than a sprint, but when she does, she’s going to be splendid.
On opening night at the Kennedy Center, she was working too hard—trying to be the life of a party at which she’s meant to be the guest of honor—a generous, albeit unnecessary impulse. As staged by Eric Schaeffer, that party’s an old-fashioned blast, and the boomer-and-older audience seemed primed to adore it from the moment the first downbeat unleashed a 22-piece pit band with more than its share of blaring trumpets and pixilated piccolos. It’s customary, these days, to update the sound of older musicals, but the KenCen is using the original orchestrations, and nobody’s heard this many instruments in a musical-comedy orchestra in decades. The sound they make is as big as anyone’s memories of pre-synthesizer showbiz.
And Mame—the adventures of a boy and his eccentric aunt—is Big, appropriately gussied up with plenty of party scenes and an occasional foray into operetta. The show is a product of that middle era on Broadway—after Rodgers and Hammerstein had figured out how to make the elements of musical comedy hang together as an artistic whole and before Sondheim had found ways to exploit the seriousness that discovery made possible. Herman’s catchy, familiar tunes hang lightly on Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s libretto, because entertainment is this enterprise’s only motive, which frees everyone to be bright, cheery, and generous. The big dance numbers seem to go on for days, with Baranski tapping, Charleston-ing, being flipped end over end, doing splits, and kicking so high at one point that she has to be caught by a chorus boy.
Lavishness also extends to the show’s look, centered on a three-story staircase that breaks loose from its moorings to swirl with the chorus during the cheer-up numbers that pop up at regular intervals to keep things moving. Designer Walt Spangler’s art deco Manhattan is a playground outfitted with an oversized swing set (an upholstered crescent moon for Mame’s debut as the man in the moon who’s a lady) and a jungle gym (the rotating, disassembling staircase), not to mention chandeliers that Ken Billington’s lighting can colorize as if they were oversized accessories to the glistening fuchsia-and-gold outfits sported by the leading lady. When Mame heads to Dixie with her Beau (Jeff McCarthy) so his family can serenade her with the title number, a huge white mansion sidles on in from the wings, and she dons so much Georgia peachy crinoline and lace she looks like a wedding cake.
I don’t mean to suggest that Baranski is always the focus of attention. How could she be, with Desperate Housewife Harriet Harris stealing scenes as Mame’s campy bosom buddy, Vera, or with Harrison Chad and Max von Essen so neatly matched as first- and second-act Patricks—the former adolescent and wise beyond his years, the latter grown-up but still wet behind the ears. Emily Skinner’s Agnes Gooch, Michael L. Forrest’s Mr. Babcock, and Mary Stout’s Mother Burnside all cut loose in amusing ways, too.
None of which keeps the pace from slackening somewhat after the title number, which is every bit as spectacular as it needs to be in Schaeffer’s staging. The director has done something I don’t recall from earlier stagings—he’s kept Patrick present and accounted for as Warren Carlyle’s choreography is celebrating the conclusion of a fox hunt in which Mame has brought the fox back alive. Beau proposes, Mame accepts, and young Patrick stands bereft at what he sees as his abandonment at the right of the stage. His face is a mask of grief as the choreographer shuffles red hunting jackets, black hats, and white gowns, forming patterns with couples and trios and finally allowing his dancers to coalesce into a double chorus line that seems to change color as it kicks.
Usually, the number is followed by Patrick’s singing a tearful chorus of “My Best Girl,” to give the audience an emotional reason to come back after intermission. Here, that’s not needed, because Patrick’s distress is there throughout.
If Act Two feels less like a romp, that’s partly because the air goes out of the evening’s central relationship when young Patrick grows up, and partly because Schaeffer’s staging has done its emotional work so efficiently through what is usually a blithe and essentially frivolous Act One; pulling out all the heart-wringing stops, which is what the authors do as the show is drawing to a close, doesn’t seem necessary.
Take Mame’s anthem of parental doubt, “If He Walked Into My Life,” in which she wonders if Patrick’s childhood was “all too lush and loud.” Baranski is alone onstage for the first time all evening—no chorus threatening to toss her around, no competition from comic sidekicks, just the star and a spotlight and a ballad. And all the anguish Mame feels at that moment, we’re feeling too, because of what Baranski, the director, and the show have told us about the relationship. It’s a moment for reflecting—for ruminating—and it starts out that way, but after a few bars it becomes more insistent.
Baranski isn’t just singing the song, she’s acting it, at first delicately, and then with increasing force. And because she is a far more robust vocal presence than Lansbury, or indeed than most Mames have ever been, she’s able to build what is usually a wistful little ballad with a big finish into a torchy showstopper. The ovation she got at the end of it on opening night was rapturous. And it’s hard to argue with that, except that in the richer dramatic context Schaeffer has given the show, the rendition is…well, all too lush and loud, really. It’s one of those moments where a star might shine all the brighter by dimming her wattage a bit.
None of which seemed to matter much to the crowd out front, which cheered at the show’s conclusion as if Schaeffer and his company had revived not just Mame but the way audiences felt in the presence of a star.CP