Considering Jerry Herman’s adoration for his leading ladies, a giant staircase custom-built for grand diva entrances seems almost a requirement of his shows. In the Kennedy Center’s opulently appointed revival of “Mame,” that staircase glides around to become a gateway to the world opened up by its ineffably worldly title character. There’s plenty here to entice Broadway musical nostalgists, including a whole catalog of vintage-modern decor, more costume changes than a Cher concert and enough beading to blind entire nations of garment workers — not to mention a robust orchestra and a populous ensemble. What’s lacking is heart.
Jerry’s girls may be at home in the spotlight, flaunting fabulous couture, tossing off witticisms or tossing back cocktails, but the most enduring of them all share a palpable emotional core that makes them more than just larger-than-life glamour figures. Dolly Levi’s matchmaking diligence masks her own hunger for love. Mabel Normand’s unrewarded devotion to Mack Sennett drives her to drugs and despair. Zaza/Albin is wound by love and jealousy into a state of constant hysteria.
Mame Dennis is perhaps most immediately identified as an eccentric avatar of pre-war New York sophistication, but the maternal warmth she acquires when orphaned nephew Patrick comes into her life is no less important in defining her than the whirl of wild parties and the glittering social circle.
Christine Baranski delivers Mame’s madcap spirit and the droll remove from a mundane world of dreary practicality, and she becomes a persuasive cultural guru to her impressionable charge. But she neglects to become a surrogate mother.
Baranski’s a relatively recent recruit to musical theater, with her much-admired Mrs. Lovett the main event in the Kennedy Center’s 2002 Sondheim Festival staging of “Sweeney Todd.” From that experience the plan materialized for her to tackle another role originated by Angela Lansbury — the lead in “Mame,” the 1966 tuner by Herman and book writers Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee.
With a blond bob and a svelte figure that makes her an elegant clotheshorse, Baranski looks the part, and she manages both vocal and dance duties with aplomb. She’s an accomplished comic actress who can do deadpan disdain with the best of ’em, and her Mame seems sardonically detached from everyone in her orbit, which works except in the case of Patrick. Baranski does a fine job with the show’s most heartfelt song, “If He Walked Into My Life.” But her failure to etch a deep emotional bond with the boy who’s grown up in her care robs her sudden loss of its poignancy.
Baranski seems a more natural fit for Mame’s archly theatrical, booze-sodden friend Vera Charles. That casting, however, would deny auds the amusement of Harriet Harris in the role. Shooting glowering double takes while wincing at the noise and movement going on around her and demonstrating the precarious balance of a habitual drunk, her Vera strikes an irresistible balance between the imperious but hammy grande dame of the theater and the blowsy old soak.
Changing costumes onstage to become a lady astronomer in an ill-begotten “modern operetta,” Harris makes Vera’s “The Moon Song” one of the show’s high points. Whether glaring at a chorine who momentarily upstages her or shuddering with mortification when Mame derails the performance by having a vertigo attack while suspended on a crescent moon, Harris is priceless.
But not even she is immune to the show’s overall sluggishness, particularly in some of the creaky book scenes. Dialogue that should zing and pop frequently becomes flat, laden with unnecessary pauses. From the first big number, “It’s Today,” it’s clear that director Eric Schaeffer needs to lean harder on the accelerator; at nearly three hours, the show’s second act especially starts to drag.
While Herman reportedly has made cuts, further pruning wouldn’t have hurt. Mame’s song “That’s How Young I Feel,” which occurs during her visit to the Connecticut home of Patrick’s bigoted fiancee, stops the plot. It seems dropped in merely to allow for another of choreographer Warren Carlyle’s determinedly boisterous dance numbers. Conception of big production numbers like the title song and “Open a New Window” is solid, but execution generally could be a fraction tighter.
There’s some grating overacting in the large cast (of 36), making the more understated work of Emily Skinner as Patrick’s frumpy nanny Agnes all the more pleasing. She does a lovely job with “Gooch’s Song,” an endearingly befuddled account of how Mame’s exhortation to “Live, live, live!” has resulted in Agnes returning pregnant six months later. Max von Essen is an appealing, smooth-voiced presence as the college-age Patrick.
Fresh off his stylish period work on “The Drowsy Chaperone,” costumer Gregg Barnes has a field day here with all the chic Jazz Age finery, outfitting the cast in furs, feathers, satin and velvet. The splashy production’s affectionate, old-fashioned feel is evident in Walt Spangler’s sets, with deco elements providing iconic representation of Manhattan and Mame’s constant makeovers of No. 3 Beekman Place justifying a busy succession of color and design statements.
Music director James Moore leads the 22-piece orchestra with verve, making Herman’s terrific score and witty lyrics the main attraction. Even if the match of Baranski and la Dennis doesn’t build an urgent case for bringing the show back to Broadway after a 23-year absence, “Mame” retains its share of sparkling pleasures.