Sunday, May 20, 2012

Review of Goodspeed Opera House's "Mame"

One day the Goodspeed Opera House will produce a musical starring Kirsten Wyatt instead of just employing her considerable comedic talents as a featured actress.  She was one of the bright spots from last year’s My One and Only and her performance as Agnes Gooch in the season opener, Jerry Herman’s Mame, is one of the show’s highlights.

Mame is one of the legendary characters in the musical theater canon.  Angela Lansbury starred in the 1966 Broadway original and her portrayal of the free-spirited, liberated Mame Dennis set the bar for other actresses to come.  The Goodspeed production, which plays through July 7th, features Louise Pitre, a Tony Award nominee for Mamma Mia, as the feisty, unorthodox jet-setter.  She looks fabulous in the numerous costumes designed by Gregg Barnes, but her performance lacks the necessary zip and liveliness.  In fact, the whole production is missing a certain bounce and effervescence.
"It's Today!"  Louise Pitre and the cast of Mame.

The book of the show is based on the popular novel, Auntie Mame, and the subsequent play of the same name by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee.  Lawrence and Lee adapted their play into the musical Mame which tells the story of young Patrick Dennis and his nanny, Agnes Gooch, who travel to New York City to live with Patrick’s Auntie Mame now that his father has died.  Mame takes an immediate liking to the lad and introduces him to her bohemian ways and eccentric friends, which includes actress and lush, Vera Charles.  Their adventures from pre-Depression wealth through the Stock Market Crash and back to the monied life (thanks to the unfortunate death of Mame’s newly minted rich husband) are riddled with high-flying exploits and silly escapades. 

Patrick grows older and falls in love with a snobbish and pretentious girl, in reaction to both his unusual upbringing and need to have a more normal, regimented life.  Mame, of course, sets him straight in the nick of time and he ends up marrying a more sensible, down-to-earth woman.  As the curtain falls, Mame is conniving to take the young couple’s son on an adventure to India.

My main problem with the show was the aforementioned absence of pacing and vitality of the production.  Director Ray Roderick should have done more to kickstart the musical to overcome the languidness of some scenes and episodic nature of the show.  Choreographer Vince Pesce adds some nice flourishes but, unlike most Goodspeed musicals, the dance numbers seem a tad forced and not as integrated into the entire production.

Kirsten Wyatt's character Agnes Gooch learns to "Live Live LIVE!" from her tutors Vera Charles (Judy Blazer) and Mame Dennis (Louise Pitre).
In addition to Louise Pitre, as Mame, Judy Blazer plays best friend, Vera Charles.  Blazer, a seasoned Broadway veteran, who also looks spectacular in her outfits, seems to relish her role.  But as one who is almost always without a drink in hand when on stage she is a bit too controlled.  Instead of the life of the party, she is just a guest.  Charles Hagerty, as the older Patrick, has boyish good looks and a fine voice.  Eli Baker, as young Patrick, can act, sing, and keep in line with the rest of the more mature cast.  A slightly disconcerting aspect of the show is the cast’s lack of aging.  The timeframe of Mame is between 1928 thru 1946, but most of the central characters, besides the older Patrick, do not seem to get older at all.  It was a curious dynamic.

The strength of Mame is the outstanding Jerry Herman score, probably his best.  There are so many marvelous numbers including “It’s Today,” “Open a New Window,” “We Need a Little Christmas,” “Mame,” and “Bosom Buddies.”  I could quibble with the pacing of “Bosom Buddies,” one of the all-time duets in Broadway history, but that’s more because I play the song often on my radio show and how can you compare any version to the two originals--Angela Lansbury and Bea Arthur?

Mame, a respectable staging at the Goodspeed Opera House thru July 7th.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Review of "Nice Work If You Can Get It"

Gershwin music.  Matthew Broderick.  Kelli O’Hara.  Great supporting cast.  Zany book.  Buoyant choreography.  Mix and stir (with bootlegged booze, of course) and you come up with the comical effervescence, Nice Work If You Can Get It.

The musical, loosely based on the Gershwin’s Oh, Kay!, follows the boozy escapades of rich boy Jimmy Winter, a seemingly perpetually soused Matthew Broderick, from his last night of freedom—he’s getting married in the morning—to his chance meeting with bootlegger Billie Bendix, a rough and tumble Kelli O’Hara.  Of course they fall in love, then quickly part, only to reunite, purely by accident, at Winter’s Long Island estate which Billie and her gang think is unoccupied.  Where better to hide out and stow their bootlegged wares.  Unfortunately, Winter and his entourage show up to ignite a host of mistaken identities, hanky-panky, and subterfuge.  There is, for those worried sorts, a multitude of happy endings.

Nice Work If You Can Get It is the second Gershwin hodgepodge to make it to Broadway.  The first, the charming 1983 musical, My One and Only, also had two charismatic stars in Tommy Tune and Twiggy, plenty of raz-ma-tazz production numbers, and the songs of the Gershwin brothers. 

In Nice Work If You Can Get It we have the resplendent Kelli O’Hara, at her playful best.  Her gorgeous voice is beautifully tailored to such classics as “Someone to Watch Over Me” and “But Not For Me.”  Matthew Broderick, absent from the musical stage since The Producers, has found the perfect vehicle for his talents.  Mischievous and puckish, he also brings a devilish attitude and temperament to his role.  My only issue with his performance was it seemed more one-dimensional.  He reminded me of Dudley Moore’s portrayal in Arthur, a perpetually inebriated playboy.  It didn’t hurt his characterization, but a more lively effort would have enhanced the role.

The supporting cast is equally impressive.  Tony Award nominated Michael McGrath, as Billie Bendix’s partner in crime, Cookie McGee, is a seasoned comic sidekick that has graced Broadway productions for many years.   He, along with fellow Tony Award nominee, Judy Kay, as the Duchess Estonia Dulworth, enliven the production and provide some of the most fun and laughs on stage. 

The Gershwin songs in the show highlight a small sampling of the brother’s incredible output.  In addition to the aforementioned titles the audience is bedazzled with “Sweet and Lowdown,” “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” “Fascinating Rhythm,” “Lady Be Good,” “I’ve Got a Crush on You,” and many more. 

Joe DiPietro’s book has the requisite silliness and daftness of all those musicals of the 1920’s through 1940’s where plot was secondary to pretty girls cavorting on stage (which Nice Work has a lot of) and a lively tune or ballad.

Director/Choreographer Kathleen Marshall has the light touch necessary for the airy feel of the show.  Her aim is simple—provide a fun and entertaining diversion.  The choreography, while not the full throttle brashness of her work in last year’s Anything Goes, is still deliciously enjoyable especially the moments that Matthew Broderick bounds across the stage.

Nice Work If You Can Get It—a cool, carefree spring tonic for theater-goers looking for a little fizzle in their theater-going experience.