Strange relatives and potent alcohol - a musical comedy made for the holidays

By John Quinn

Pat Caporuscio, Aaron Smith and Kathy Vertin in "Mame" at the new Riverbank Theatre in Marine City. Photo: Riverbank Theatre

My Auntie Mary Clare took me to see the film "Auntie Mame." What an experience! Director Morton DaCosta, his writers and designers had turned Patrick Dennis' memoires of growing up under the tutelage of a flamboyant aunt into a visual and auditory delight, full of color and wit. My exuberant report convinced my parents to see it – which allowed me to see it again, but probably put me on a descending spiral into art criticism. I was 8. I didn't want Auntie Mame to adopt me; I wanted to adopt Rosalind Russell.
"Mame," the musical version of the play that inspired the film, opened at the Winter Garden Theatre in New York in 1966. It's opened again this December at the brand new Riverbank Theatre in Marine City. The venue is anything but a "black box" theater; it sports a paint job in sky blue and teal, off-set by white trim. Even the lighting instruments are white. It's a cheerful place to take in a musical, but the company's other location, just up Water Street – The Snug, which IS a black box – has hosted some very entertaining musicals, both large and small. While the production does show the potential of the new performance space, "Mame" is too ambitious a production to be completely successful.
"Mame's" Broadway premiere was in the golden era of the book musical. Everything was big: big voices and big orchestras; lavish sets and costumes. Musical numbers utilized big choruses of triple-threat singers, dancers and actors, performers capable of astonishing precision. "Mame" benefits from Jerry Herman's articulate, complex words and music coupled to the wild, witty book by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. But it is ginormous. Can those big, historic shows ever be reimagined in leaner, meaner form?
Although "Mame" can boast of a great script, on further analysis one finds a rather thin plot.
Patrick Dennis, the son of a Chicago tycoon, is sent to live with his only living relative upon his father's death. Mame Dennis is an eccentric free spirit, whose Manhattan apartment is full of bathtub gin and unconventional guests. Her personality is the polar opposite of her late brother; she wants more for Patrick than his father's staid respectability. Her progress in freeing her "little man" is hampered by Dwight Babcock, the trustee for the boy's inheritance. So from roughly 1928 to 1946, through lean times and good times, "Mame" tells the story of Patrick Dennis' coming of age and the characters he meets along the way.
The recent, award-winning revival of Jerry Herman's "La Cage aux Folles" was a revelation. Stripped of its multiple sets, glitz and glamor, the production removed the distractions to reveal a more thoughtful exploration of the human condition than anyone would have expected. It also allowed Jerry Herman's musical interludes to achieve a life all their own.
Consider The Snug's production of yet another Herman musical, "Hello, Dolly!" last season. It down-sized Goliath into an agile, affable form that allowed the music to take center stage in more ways than one. Restaging the classic musical for current conditions is definitely possible, but can that be said of all of them?
A successful musical involves "attitude" from all artists involved. "Mame" is notable in that it is more dependent on defining character by costume and sets than its Broadway kin. Budget constraints will interfere. Attitude, style, flair – call it what you will, but it's the key to trimming the fat just enough to produce a savory piece of steak. It is unfortunate that iconic numbers, like "Open a New Window" and the first act finale, "Mame," simply lack sizzle.
The company once again, though, is showcasing its strong points: Paul Decker's solid musical direction, John Kreidler uncanny ability on a sound mixer, and some fine vocalists. Kathy Vertin is a rather subdued Mame, but there's nothing held back in her singing. Aaron Dennis Smith and Brittany Everitt Smith, two Marine City favorites, bring their A-game as the grown-up Patrick and plain-Jane Alice Gooch, Mame's secretary. An audience favorite is Christy Kreidler in the role of Vera Charles, Mame's "bosom buddy" and verbal sparring partner. But 11-year-old Gabriel P. Rowland Renaud, front and center as Young Patrick, is certainly holding his own among the adults.
But in general, Riverbank Theatre bit off more than it can chew in producing "Mame." That leaves director Nancy Arnfield with too many slow line deliveries and slow scene changes, tentative choreography and chorus work.
Our Auntie Mame proclaims that "Life is a banquet," but, while not starving to death, "Mame" leaves me a mite puckish.

Riverbank Theatre
358 S. Water St., Marine City
7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 12, 10
7 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 13, 20
3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 14, 21
2 hours, 30 minutes


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