When the literati debate the virtues of Stephen Sondheim versus Andrew Lloyd Webber, the forgotten man is Jerry Herman, whose popular touch cannot be dismissed. His Hello, Dolly! ran on Broadway for 2,844 performances, longer than anything Sondheim has dreamed of, and is returning to Broadway this season. La Cage aux Folles ran for 1,761 performances and the 1966 Mame for 1,508.
Mame features a book by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, based on their 1956 hit play Auntie Mame, which in turn was based on Patrick Dennis' best-selling novel. The play became a huge success as a film in 1958, with Rosalind Russell re-creating her Broadway triumph. The musical (which starred Angela Lansbury) did not fare nearly as well in the disastrous 1974 film starring Lucille Ball.
Dennis' semiautobiographical novel spins the tale of the unforgettable eccentric who took charge of his upbringing in the 1920s after his father died. Auntie Mame lived a fabled life among the rich of Manhattan, a glamorous environment rife with speakeasies, free love and avant-garde artists.
Young Patrick's education is guided by his free-spirited aunt through Prohibition, the Depression and into the Eisenhower years of national apathy. Auntie Mame's philosophy is summed up in the memorable line: "Life is a banquet, and most poor sons of bitches are starving to death!" Or as she puts it even more succinctly, "Live! Live! Live!"
Auntie Mame's adventurous and elegant lifestyle prefigured the '60s and the exhilarating influence of Jackie and John Kennedy. In the sleepy years of postwar conformity, it was a paean to exuberance, a call to rebellious liberation from the musty precepts of buttoned-down morality.
Lawrence and Lee's book provides no more than sketchy highlights from their hilarious play, but everything that is missing is more than made up for by Herman's terrific score and memorable lyrics. There are vibrant songs like "Open a New Window" and "It's Today," alternating with touching ballads like "My Best Girl" and "If He Walked Into My Life."
Most memorable is the rousing title song that rivals "Hello, Dolly!" for kitschy power. Both songs were brilliantly parodied by the great song from A Chorus Line called "One Singular Sensation," but the parody is a testament to the irresistible charm of the originals.
Imaginatively directed by Gregory Jaye, the Theater Works production of Mame shows just what can be accomplished with a lot of love and a minuscule budget. This company exemplifies the best meaning of the term amateur, artistic work created for love, not professional gain. Cast members work their tails off, and offer their hearts generously on their sleeves.
Jaye is blessed to have Kim Haveman in the title role, singing with the authority of a Broadway star. She provides the center on which this universe revolves, and she delivers with such winning style that almost everyone who plays with her looks good.
She is matched by a handsome and charming Kendall Lee Linn as Beauregard Jackson Picket Burnside, the wealthy gentleman from Georgia who rescues her from poverty. Together, Haveman and Linn make an enchanting couple who stir our romantic imagination.
Also effective are Lyman Akers as the stalwart friend M. Lindsay Woolsey and Jacque M. Collins as Mame's prudish secretary, Agnes Gooch. In a clever piece of casting, Mame's bosom pal Vera Charles, the gin-swilling first lady of the stage, is played by baritone G.C. Santos. At a time when Patrick Swayze and Terrence Stamp can look good in a dress, it's a logical move--and not so far afield from Beatrice Arthur, who originated the role in the musical.
Young Patrick is well-acted by Thomas Porter, although his voice sometimes cannot find quite the right pitch, and Michael P. Brooks straddles the line appropriately between sympathetic and obnoxious as the grown-up Patrick, although as an adult, he still can't carry his part of the melodies.
The triumph of the evening belongs to the charming choreography by Cynthia Rose. She keeps her amateur dancers moving with an lan and grace that belie their skill, and keep the whole enterprise in an ebullient mood.
You will hardly notice the skimpy sets or the sketchy acting or the occasional threadbare costume, because the spirit of the cast is so intoxicating you will feel happy to be in a theatre again, thrilling to music, feeling the rhythms, wiping away the stray tear.
One of the highlights of the musical, sung when the unconventional family is left destitute by the great crash on Wall Street, is a song called "We Need a Little Christmas." Auntie Mame and company exchange modest gifts in November, because they need Christmas then, rather than later. In our current conservative climate, the age of Gingrich and Dole and Congressional cuts to poor families and the elderly, maybe a liberal sprinkling of Mame is just what we need right now.