Ethnic Theater - Jewish
Goodspeed Musicals, East Haddam, Connecticut
Jerry Herman is right up there, high among the firmament of Jewish-American composers (and lyricists). He holds his own with the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin and others. Somewhere in the world there is surely a production of “Hello, Dolly!” or “La Cage aux Folles” or “Mame”-- or his early show “Milk and Honey,” which celebrated the founding of Israel. To offer a cliché, the sun never sets on a Jerry Herman show.
At the moment Connecticut theatergoers (and travelers from New York City and elsewhere) are treated to a production of “Mame”---at Goodspeed Musicals. Though a two-hour drive from Manhattan, one finds the trek to Goodspeed well worth the effort. For starters, the show is housed in a fairy-tale setting. The theatre (erected in the 19th century) looks like a three-tiered wedding cake, clinging to the hillside and overlooking the Connecticut River. Whether sipping drinks on the terrace or ensconced within the ornate theater with its pocket-size stage, one moves to another world.
This time around, this Jerry Herman musical has its strengths and its weaknesses. On the plus side are the jazzy stage sets and costumes, which glorify the Art Deco era and later decades. And of course there are the memorable Herman tunes—among them, “If He Walked into My Life,” “We Need a Little Christmas,” and the title song. While performers are a mixed bag, the Jerry Herman touch carries the day.
What is “Mame” all about? Originally a novel by Patrick Dennis, it relates the experience of a young orphaned boy who comes to live with his flamboyant Auntie Mame. She, with enough money to indulge her credo, is the very essence of the Jazz Age. “Life is a banquet,” she intones, “……so live, live, live!” She offers Patrick freedom, a new awareness of the world, and unlimited love. Who could ask for anything more?
This particular production offers a cartoon-y version of the classic. Given more subtlety would add depth and poignancy to the piece. Instead, every one works too hard, going over the top in all roles…..except perhaps Mame herself, portrayed by Louise Pitre. Although Pitre has a fine husky voice, perfect for a Broadway musical, she gives only a serviceable rendition of the role, haunted by such predecessors as Angela Lansbury and Rosalind Russell. She just does not have the larger-than-life persona of such earlier players. Yet her chemistry with her little nephew Patrick is sweet, lovable, and believable. As for that nephew, young Eli Baker works the stage like a pro. He sings, dances, interacts with others, and never misses a beat. Even better (if that is possible) is Charles Hagerty as the grown-up Patrick, who offers a mellow voice and a fine open style. And one must acknowledge Kirsten Wyatt who runs away with the comic role of Agnes Gooch, injecting the show with moments of humor.
While this production gets a mixed review, one must always give four stars to the Goodspeed Theatre—and of course to Jerry Herman himself.
May 12, 2012