Kennedy game for ‘Mame’

Helmer Schaeffer promises a 'reimagined' show from the original

WASHINGTON — Regardless of how the critics greet the Kennedy Center’s revival of “Mame” this week, the high-caliber show toplined by Christine Baranski promises to be a real love-fest.

And why not? It’s been precisely 40 years since the tuner settled into a lengthy Broadway run with such memorable numbers as “Bosom Buddies” and “If He Walked Into My Life.”

It also helps to have star Baranski, whose performance in the center’s 2002 production of “Sweeney Todd” helped inspire the revival.

On hand to lend assistance and inspire the proceedings is “Mame’s” jovial composer-lyricist, Jerry Herman. “This production allows a 74-year-old man to relive one of the happiest and most successful experiences of his life,” says Herman.

He is witnessing the Kennedy Center at full throttle — steering a Gotham-sized $4.8 million budget, a 34-member cast and a full 25-person orchestra. Not even the 1983 Broadway revival had that many bodies involved.

Cast also includes Harriet Harris as temperamental actress Vera Charles, Emily Skinner as Agnes Gooch and Jeff McCarthy as Beauregard.

Then there’s the 300 lavish costumes designed by Gregg Barnes, fresh off a Tony nomination for “The Drowsy Chaperone.” Fourteen of them have been created for Baranski, who consequently might be as busy offstage as on. Equally eye-popping, promises Herman, will be Walt Spangler’s opulent sets, complete with an enormous staircase, and entirely new choreography by Warren Carlyle (associate choreographer on “The Producers”).

Another reason for the high spirits is the absence of tryout pressure. As is typical of Kennedy Center-produced shows, no future is planned beyond this five-week engagement. “I’m here to do great work in D.C.,” says Kennedy Center prexy Michael Kaiser. If someone comes along and wants to move it, which is entirely possible, that’s another story, he says.

(The Nederlander Org, which has first rights to Herman’s musicals, could make plans to transfer the tuner this summer to its Palace Theater, if it proves a hit in D.C.)

Further insight into the center’s nonprofit mindset is the tuner’s booking in its 1,100-seat Eisenhower Theater, not the cavernous 2,600-seat Opera House where touring musicals are presented. The cozier venue provides a better audience experience and is where virtually all such productions are held.

Under Kaiser, now in his sixth year at the helm, the Kennedy Center’s stature as a producing facility has been dramatically elevated. Theatrical projects are selectively mounted and delivered at a consistently high level.

Indeed, it was at the wildly successful Sondheim Festival in 2002 — Kaiser’s first big theatrical project here — where Baranski caught his eye. “It happened during ‘Sweeney Todd,’ when I was watching Christine’s wonderful performance as Mrs. Lovett,” recalls Kaiser. “I said, ‘Somebody needs to produce “Mame” around here.'”

Surprisingly, no professional production of the musical, with book by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, has ever appeared in D.C., and so it seemed to Kaiser like a worthy project. Baranski approved of the concept, a convenient date was found and the project began to roll.

While Kaiser seldom gets involved in casting decisions, there was never a second choice for the plum role of the eccentric heiress. “This show really was revived for Christine,” he says. (Baranski will return next season for a “Sweeney Todd” concert with her KenCen co-star, Brian Stokes Mitchell.) Kaiser also “suggested” Harris for the role of Vera.

Another fast decision was the choice of Eric Schaeffer to direct. The 43-year-old honcho of Arlington, Va.’s Signature Theater won praise as artistic director of the Sondheim festival and has developed strong ties with Kaiser and crew.

Schaeffer promises that anyone who caught the original production will see a “completely reimagined” show, with much more dancing and touches like the elimination of music around scene changes. Several sequences have been tightened, while scenically the entire stage is framed in a New York City locale.

“The show feels remarkably fresh after 40 years,” claims Schaeffer, who figures that’s not surprising, since its bold central character is perpetually ahead of her time.

The show also might reveal a giant leap in the learning process of Baranski as a musical theater artist. She reportedly had never sung onstage before “Sweeney Todd,” while “Mame” marks her dancing debut in a professional production. We’re not talking about a few perfunctory steps here, either. Baranski is featured in many more dances than in the original production, including complicated over-the-shoulder maneuvers. “She is going to surprise a lot of people,” predicts Schaeffer, a view echoed by composer Herman.

“In the theater today,” says Herman, “we are not developing musical stars the way we used to.” But in Baranski, he believes, “We are witnessing the development of a true musical comedy heroine.”

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