By Ian Rigg
Everyone has that one wild aunt they’re beyond fond of. The aunt who loves life. The aunt who takes care of you. The aunt who teaches you new things. The aunt who shows you speakeasies, teaches you how to mix a martini, enrolls you in a new-age nudist school…an aunt who is wrong in all the right ways. Auntie Mame.
Many will know the plot of the musical theatre classic. After his father passes, young Patrick Dennis becomes the ward of the marvelous, madcap Mame. Her relationship with her nephew is at first bemused, but burgeons and blossoms into something beautiful. Each teach the other something new, as they careen through the highs and lows of the Jazz Age and Great Depression and clash with conservative forces who confuse being right with being right-wing.
The goal of Light Opera Works is not to retread or rehash the same old classic canon. Under the direction of Rudy Hogenmiller, its production of Mame aims to open a new window, open a new door and let some light into an old stalwart. It shines beautifully.
Right out of the gate, the production is a party pumping with joie de vivre. The exuberant choreography of Clayton Cross kicks, flips, jitterbugs and lindy hops the show right along. “It’s Today” is pulsing with life, and is downright Luhrmannesque in its bejeweled bacchanalia. Jay Gastby’s got nothing on Mame Dennis. There’s gin in the bathtub, there’s a bishop milling about and the bugle blows.
It’s a lavish apartment, the work of scenic designer Adam Veness. With spectacular staircase and artistic backsplash of city skyline, Mame’s penthouse is practically a character in and of itself, and always furnished with the latest artwork, starting the show in Art Deco, and ending with Jackson Pollock, with smartly sparse decoration during Act I’s lean years. Styling the sumptuous shindigs therein is Robert S. Kuhn who is to be commended for covering a wide walk of life, locales and time periods, from flappers and gangsters and avant garde artists in 1929, to a Southern day at the races in the 30s, to the squarest New England soiree. He does it with phenomenal panache and an eye for color and character. Light Opera Works truly spares no expense at bringing audiences phenomenal production values, the visual smorgasbord completed by Andrew H. Meyers’s deft lighting design.
The show looks great, and it sounds even greater. Sound designer Aaron Quick has accounted for every level and facilitates the songs to soar. Music director Roger L. Bingaman conducts an orchestra full of ringers, and a cast full of singers, both equally outstanding. Bingaman’s sharp control of dynamics and cutoffs, and expert ability to coax color and character out of his musicians on and offstage, is downright masterful.
Equally commanding are the motley crew of characters in Mame’s world (because it is Mame’s world, they’re just living in it). Alicia Berneche is the first soul the audience sees, escorting young Patrick as the delightfully dowdy Agnes Gooch. Berneche has an astounding voice but courageously uses it to squawk instead of warble, and her Gooch is quite a hoot. The musical is awash in scrumptious character roles: Russell Alan Rowe as the stalwart pal M. Lindsay Woolsey, Alexis Aker and Alexis Armstrong as Southern belles Cousin Fan and Sally Cato, Jody Goldman as the Confederacy-yearning Mother Burnside, Michelle McKenzie-Voigt and Kirk Swenk as the nose-upturned Upsons, Amanda Giles as their airy daughter, Megan Gill as the beguiling interior decorator Pegeen.
Everywhere patrons look, there’s a lovely portrayal. Alexander Wu is riotous as Ito, elevating the role above its scope (watch for the funniest stairclimb ever seen on that stage). Rick Rapp is Dwight Babcock, a carefully crafted stick-in-the-mud played with utter conviction. In the midst of Mame’s Jazz Age antics, it’s hard not to at least wonder if he’s secretly the good guy. Nic Fantl is completely charismatic as Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside. All of the lovingly created characters leave audiences yearning for more.
Mary Robin Roth is perfectly cast as Vera Charles. Boozy, bombed out, bombastic, bemused, she lights up every scene she’s in with masterful delivery. She really commits to the actress extraordinaire, deftly playing between a complete sense of self-awareness and an utter lack of it, depending on her level of intoxication. Her sentimental sparring with Mame is endlessly entertaining.
Justin Adair and his vibrant voice is a consistent treat to Chicago theater audiences. It’s interesting to see him suppress his wild upbringing in the name of upholding decency and keeping up appearances, particularly because Adair’s Patrick knows deep down he doesn’t belong with the stale upper crust Upsons. As remarkable as he is, audiences will likely be taken with his counterpart Young Patrick, phenomenally portrayed by Zachary Scott Fewkes. Merely 10 years old, Fewkes wisely plays the innocence of Patrick. The comedic timing and sight of a precious, precocious little boy acclimating to a wonton world is devastatingly dear and droll. The pure vocal quality and raw earnesty of “My Best Girl” rightly tugs heartstrings. His relationship with Mame is the soul of the show, and Fewkes forges and fosters that bond with his every breath.
All these accolades aside, in a musical called Mame, the show lives and dies by its titular character. Nancy Hays not only delivers: she brings sparkles in spades. Her livewire verve is the lifeblood of the show. With a pep in her step, a gleam in her eye and a soulful song in her heart, Hays is vivacious, vaudevillian, and very, very good.
Its a joy to watch her navigate the show as a freewheeling dynamo, through all the obstacles she faces in the forms of obstinate people. From a banker trying to separate her from Patrick, to a plantation where an old woman literally yells about the “South rising again,” to well-to-do Connecticut residents who want to keep “the wrong people” out of their neighborhood, Hays’ Mame combats conservatism with comedic timing like no other. Rather than revile the title “deceitful Bohemian heathen,” she revels in it.
She masterfully shifts between the many modalities of Mame, from wry to wistful to woeful to wonderful, sometimes all in the same scene: her time on the Upson Farm, singing “That’s How Young I Feel” to “If He Walked Into My Life,” is as good a case as any to prove Hays is the definitive article. She’s mad and magnificent.
Light Opera Works’ dazzling, delightful production of Mame is an old gem polished up for free spirits. Though it’s been visited often before, it’s being offered up in a time when many would rather throw up a wall than throw a party. This phenomenal production reminds audiences to live, to live well and to live with love, the only way to live freely. In the immortal words of Mame herself, “Life is a banquet, and most poor sons of bitches are starving to death.” Feast yourself on Light Opera Works’ Mame.
Light Opera Works presents “Mame” Thursdays to Sundays through Aug. 28 at Cahn Auditiorium, 600 Emerson Street, Evanston, IL. More information and tickets (starting at $34; half-price for patrons under age 25) are available online here. Photos by Rich Foreman.