Auntie Mame Dennis, the woman who can “coax the blues right out of the horn” and “charm the husk right off of the corn,” is back. Yes, Kentwood Players’ revival is community theater and not the great-big Equity production L.A. has been awaiting the past baker’s dozen years. Still, with a pizzazzy lead performance and several supporting gems, it’s worth a visit to the Westchester Playhouse to rediscover the gal who took Broadway by storm not once but twice.
The world first met the fabulous Auntie Mame as the title character of Patrick Dennis’s 1955 novel, adapted for Broadway the following year with screen star Rosalind Russell in the role she went on to reprise three years later on the silver screen, scoring an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe award for what remained for eight years the definitive Auntie Mame.
Then came Broadway 1966, and who better for show-tune master Jerry Herman to bring to musical comedy life as a follow-up to his mega-smash Hello, Dolly! than Dolly Levi’s cousin in scene-stealing, Mame Dennis, and because no one back in the ‘60s would have thought to title a show Auntie Mame The Musical, Mame (just Mame) made its Broadway debut, a show that turned Angela Lansbury into the toast of the town and won her the first of five Tony awards.
Book writers Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee opt wisely not to veer far from their original play, introducing us to madcap bohemian hostess-with-the-mostes’ Mame Dennis (Patricia Butler) through the eyes of her ten-year-old orphaned nephew Patrick (Anderson Piller), who shows up unannounced in 1928 Manhattan in the care of Miss Agnes Gooch (Elizabeth A. Bouton)—the name “Gootch” says it all—and is promptly thrown into the The Roaring Twenties at their roaringest and introduced to his Auntie Mame’s wild-and-wacky circle of friends and to her risk-affirming mantra, “Life is a banquet, and most poor sons of bitches are starving to death!”
The Stock Market Crash means a succession of odd jobs for the previously comfortably-off Mame, including a disastrous stage appearance opposite her bestie, Broadway megastar (and “World’s Greatest Lush”) Vera Charles (Catherine Rahm)—and eventually takes her down Georgia way where she makes “the South revive again” and wins the heart of plantation owner Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside (David Callender) in the bargain.
All is not Moonlight and Magnolias, however, most notably where nephew Patrick is concerned, and never more so that when boy becomes man and Mame’s formerly obedient, adoring nephew (Thomas Guastavino) begins to display every parent’s (or guardian aunt’s) worst nightmare, the serpent’s tooth of a thankless child.
Anyone who’d rather that (to continue paraphrasing Mr. Shakespeare) all did not end well that ends well had better opt for Sweeney Todd, because with Auntie Mame and Jerry Herman centerstage, you’ve got the opposite of Sondheim, i.e. a dozen or so of the catchiest show tunes ever written for a happily-ever-after Broadway show.
Speaking of which, “It’s Today, “Open A New Window,” “My Best Girl,” “We Need A Little Christmas,” “That’s How Young I Feel,” and the title song remain unmatched for musicality at a ripe young forty-nine, with lyrics as catchy as their melodies. As for “The Moon Song” (aka “The Man In The Moon), “Bosom Buddies,” and “Gooch’s Song,” Broadway standards don’t get any more laugh-out-loud hilarious than these.
In fact, with so much going for it, it’s a crime against musical theater that Mame hasn’t had a major L.A. area (or even L.A. adjacent) professional production since both Musical Theatre West and Cabrillo Music Theatre revived it back in 2002.
If nothing else, Kentwood Players’ Ben Lupejkis’ direction serves as a textbook example of how to downsize a 41-member Original Broadway Cast to a comparatively miniscule 18 while maintaining a big-cast feel. (Regional theaters should take note.) True, this means that even major featured players must don more than one wig to fill in as chorus members in full-cast production numbers, but hey, this is 2015 and casts of 40+ just don’t happen anymore.
Yes, Mame at Kentwood Players’ is clearly community theater, but what its supporting ensemble—Erika Brauer (Cousin Fan), Mark Bruce-Casares (Uncle Jeff), Sheridan Cole Crawford (Madame Branilowski, Mother Burnside, Mrs. Upson), Harold Dershimer (Dwight Babcock, Leading Man), Samuel Goldman (Elevator Boy, Junior Babcock), Lynn Gutstadt (Dance Teacher, Sally Cato), dance captain Jessie Harrison, Lawrence Hatcher (Ralph Devine, Gregor), George Kondreck (Stage Manager, Mr. Upson), Lupejkis (M. Lindsay Woolsey), Roy T. Okida (Ito), Janet Lee Rodriguez (Art Model, Pegeen Ryan), and Brittany Sindicich (Gloria Upson)—may lack in dance prowess when performing Hatcher’s energetic choreography, they make up for in enthusiasm and joie de théâtre. Though some lead and featured roles are cast a couple decades older than they are written, it’s hard not to appreciate just how hard each and every cast member has worked to bring this Mame to fruition.
Not surprisingly for a musical named after its lead character, a stellar lead performance is a must, and despite a few opening night jitters, in Kentwood veteran Butler, the Players have found their larger-than-life Mame, from Butler’s expert comic timing to her deliciously pseudo-British vowels to her great big smoky belt of a singing voice to the heartstrings-tugging rapport Butler shares with Piller’s Patrick.
Eight-year-old Piller is one of three featured performers deserving of special mention. Not only does the pint-sized charmer win an audience over from his first hello, he handles oodles of dialog like a pro, sings in a lovely boy soprano, and knows how to get a laugh. Give this talented kid a few additional lessons in projecting to the back of the theater and he’s got quite a future ahead of him.
Bouton, the Scenie-winning Lucille Frank from Kentwood Players’ Parade, returns as one of the scene-stealingest Agnes Gooches ever, with power pipes to match her comedic chops, and though Callander has considerably less to do than Butler, Piller, and Bouton, he’s got all the Southern Charm needed to make for a perfectly marvelous Beauregard.
Full-cast song-and-dance numbers may be rough around the edges but they earn audience applause, with musical director Rahm scoring high marks for cast harmonies in “It’s Today,” “Mame,” and “That’s How Young I Feel.” Less successfully staged is “The Moon Song,” the comic mishaps befalling Mame’s attempt at a “return to the stage” being insufficiently developed to score all the laughs they ought to.
Mike Walker conducts and plays piano in a surprisingly good five-piece orchestra completed by Colleen Okida (flute, piccolo, violin), Jonathan Stehney (reeds), Nick Stone (percussion and keyboard), and most notably Brent Dodson (trumpet).
Scenic designer Tony Pereslete’s set is simple enough to be transformed into multiple locales without too much delay between scenes. Robert Davis’ lighting has its effective (and not so effective) moments. Shawn K. Summerer’s sound design mixes vocals and instrumentals quite well at time, and at other times less well. Best of all are Maria Cohen’s gazillion imaginative period costumes, quite possibly a record number for a Kentwood Players production (at least on a per-capita basis), and Mame’s gowns in particular could not be more original, unique, and fabulous all at once. Wigs, on the other hand, are a bit all over the place with regard to era-appropriateness.
Lori A. Marple-Pereslete is producer. Marple-Pereslete and Kira Sherman are stage managers. Fiona Okida and Amy Witkowski are assistant stage managers.
Memo to anyone with the power to bring Mame back to life at one of the SoCal biggies: Check her out at Kentwood Players for proof that there’s still a whole lot of life in the old gal after forty-nine years … and we might just get that big-stage, big-budget golden-anniversary revival we’re waiting for.
Kentwood Players, 8301 Hindry Ave., Westchester.
March 13, 2105
Photos: Terry Delegeane