Mame Dennis, that Pied Piper of musical leading ladies, has been circling for several years looking for the right time, star and production in which to regain her rightful place in audiences’ hearts. From speculation of a TV movie (which didn’t happen with Cher, Babs or any of the other names rumored), to this summer’s Kennedy Center production (which did, with Christine Baranski) to this semi-staged concert version with Sandy Duncan, the auntie of us all seems like an elusive lady not yet ready to open a new window.
Subbing for the previously announced Donna McKechnie, who ankled in late summer for a London gig, the game and still gamine Duncan brings her plucky charm and professional skills for a short run in what is described as an “Encores”-like production. But a too-brief rehearsal time has prevented Barrington a.d. Julianne Boyd from pulling this massive musical into any passable shape, even for a concert-plus version. Jerry Herman’s tuneful score still beguiles, Duncan has her moments of dazzle, and the script can still be both wonderfully sly and sentimental. But overall, this “Mame” is more of a reminder of better past productions than a promise of future glory for the old girl.
Looking svelte and sophisticated, a thoroughly likable Duncan gives it her all, singing and dancing well and lending the role plenty of snap and heart. But the character of Mame is not simple; nor are her relationships with the many characters who enter and exit her fabulous, eventful life. Duncan’s perf is mostly focused on getting through the production intact.
It’s not an easy task to concertize big splashy production numbers that once had an epic-sized orchestra and a chorus to die for. Original helmer Gene Saks and choreographer Onna White artfully and effortlessly made the merger of music, dance, story — even design elements — into a seamless, elegant whole. In a truncated, reduced-scale version, the production realities of the show are too often just overwhelming.
But seeing the bare bones of the script, even a slightly abridged one that wisely cuts the superfluous “That’s How Young I Feel,” also exposes the original’s imperfections that may be overlooked in a haze of nostalgia for the grander days of the musical theater. Mame’s all-too-simple emotional change in accepting young Patrick into her life; the older Patrick’s quick transformation into a conservative — and back into a happy liberal; the sketchy nature of Gooch’s place in Mame’s extended family — these issues remain to trip up future productions.
The concert-version show, which extends Barrington Stage’s season into the nonsummer months for the first time at its new Pittsfield address, is not without its pleasures, which come mainly from its resilient cast. Diane J. Findlay brings an aged-in-gin comic dryness as Mame’s bosom buddy, Vera Charles. Joyce Chittick makes Gooch a deliciously daft odd duck, scoring big with her second-act solo. Johnny Shaffer is an endearing, self-possessed young Patrick. Mark Jacoby does everything perfectly right as Beauregard. Eric Ulloa, Maria Couch and Ginifer King also do solid supporting work.
The six-piece orchestra and miniaturized orchestrations are adequate and occasionally give a hint of the full-bodied score. But there’s no getting around the fact “Mame” is a show that demands size, scope and sweep if it wants to meet its heroine’s motto: “Life is a banquet!” Here, it’s not even a salad bar.