Hannah Shihdanian, Mary Callanan, Sarah Kawalek, and Sarah Mass in Mame, directed by Ilyse Robbins, at Stoneham Theatre.
Hannah Shihdanian, Mary Callanan, Sarah Kawalek, and Sarah Mass in Mame, directed by Ilyse Robbins, at Stoneham Theatre.
(© Nile Hawver/Nile Scott Shots)

The eccentric, fabulous Auntie Mame is one of the most enduring creations of the 20th century. She has traversed decades and various mediums, first appearing in Patrick Dennis' 1955 novel, and has breathed life into the careers of two of her greatest portrayers, Rosalind Russell (in the play Auntie Mame) and Angela Lansbury (in Jerry Herman's musical adaptation, Mame).

But despite being a classic musical, Mame has returned to Broadway only once, with Lansbury taking the title role again in the revival. The original production, with a book by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, was a smash hit, running for over 1,500 performances. The 1983 revival was a short-lived failure. The trouble with Mame is that, even with its glorious score, it is a flawed, uneven musical that cannot succeed without a major star. Stoneham Theatre's revival of Mame reveals just how deep the show's holes really are.

The story opens as young Patrick Dennis, newly orphaned, is delivered by Agnes Gooch direct from Iowa to the swanky Upper East Side townhouse of Mame Dennis (Kathy St. George), his only living relative. In the throes of one of her infamous parties, Mame is immediately taken by the boy and vows to protect him and teach him about the world. Patrick is ultimately sent off to boarding school by Mr. Babcock (Sean McGuirk) when Mame fails to enroll him in a conservative private school as stipulated in her late brother's will.

When the stock market crashes, Mame loses everything but her spirit. She has no luck keeping a job, but quickly meets (and marries) Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside (Will McGarrahan), a wealthy Southern gent. With Patrick now grown (played by Matty Rickard) and still at boarding school, Mame regularly sends him postcards from her exotic years-long honeymoon with Beau. After a terrible accident that kills Beau, Mame returns home to Beekman Place a widow – spirit again intact – and sets off to write her memoirs. Mame's relationship with Patrick is put to the test when he gets engaged to Gloria Upson (Sarah Kawalek), though Mame quickly sees to it that this marriage is not to be, and instead sets him up with her interior decorator, a match she approves of. The musical ends, years later, when she again vows – this time to Patrick's son – to show him the world.

Though Kathy St. George is a beloved local actress who clearly has the time of her life in the role, she is woefully miscast. Missing from her portrayal is a positively fabulous larger-than-life woman of the world. This isn't necessarily St. George's fault, as this production merely skims the surface of Mame's rich world. Under the direction of Ilyse Robbins, this Mame is an unpolished and clumsy misfire.

Many of the characters in Mame have rich comedic opportunities, but they are almost never capitalized on. Two-dimensional, paint-by-number performances are urgently at odds with the kaleidoscopic characters that fill the musical. Aside from St. George, the most regrettable missed opportunity here is Mary Callanan's performance as Vera Charles, Mame's dearest frenemy. (Bea Arthur unforgettably created the role both onstage and in film.) An endless well of gin, vitriol, and good old-fashioned bitchiness, Vera Charles is a grand star of the Broadway stage with an even grander attitude. But Callanan barely gets her teeth into this most delicious role, and she has an awkward chemistry with St. George that neuters most of their scenes together.

There are, however, some performances that rise above the underwhelming production: Ceit Zweil mines every bit of comic gold out of Agnes Gooch, and Robert Saoud savors every moment as Tanner, Mame's beloved butler. As Young Patrick, 10-year-old Cameron Levesque gives Mame its heart.

In addition to directing this production, Robbins also supplies unambitious, repetitive choreography that includes plenty of jazz squares and Charlestons, but not a moment of dazzle.

The flatness of this Mame extends to the creative team as well. Katheryn Monthei's two-level unit set does not convey the grand interior of a Beekman Place townhouse, instead looking like a high school theater set. Where there should be outlandish fashions and over-the-top accessories, costume designer Tyler Kinney instead provides a blasé assortment of nondescript (and not necessarily period appropriate) wardrobe pieces.

There is an alarming lack of attention to detail that makes this Mame look and feel more like an amateur community theater production than a professional regional theater. At the center of all the glitz and glamor – and the sensational score – is an emotionally rich love story between a young boy and his Aunt. But in a production void of any luster and riddled with miscasting, it's hard to feel much at all.