The story, adapted from the autobiographical novel Auntie Mame, charts the relationship between the orphaned Patrick Dennis (Nick Robinson) and his freewheeling socialite aunt Mame (Dee Hoty). The orphaned Patrick lands on Mame's doorstep -- already clogged with exotic partygoers -- in 1920s Manhattan. Mame takes it upon herself to educate Patrick in the school of life, and the pair cavort through a smartly staged roundup of modern art, experimental dance, and lowbrow sideshows. (Their speakeasy tango is an understated comic duet in the midst of the frenzied goings-on.) The storm cloud on their horizon? Uptight banker Babcock (Seán G. Griffin), who periodically shows up intent on squashing Patrick's budding Bohemian spirit.
Considering the enormity of her role -- and her wardrobe, consisting of a whopping 17 costumes -- Hoty's Mame is relatively humble and down to earth. She rises to the diva occasion when need be, but the heart of her performance is a genuinely warm connection with 12-year-old Robinson. This bond between flamboyant auntie and wide-eyed nephew anchors the show, around which a huge cast of 39 revolves. Robinson more than holds up his end of the bargain with a sweet, clear voice and charismatic presence.
Carol Swarbrick is a standout in the role of veteran stage actress Vera Charles, Mame's closest pal. Her absurdly high, penciled eyebrows, platinum coiffure, and permanently soused demeanor bring to mind a silent film star who's seen better days. (Think Carol Burnett's classic sendup of Gloria Swanson's turn in Sunset Boulevard.) For sheer dramatic chutzpah, Swarbrick out-Mames Doty herself in their catfight of a duet, "Bosom Buddies."
Best supporting awards should also go to Gregg Barnes' flashy costumes, working overtime to transport Mame from the roaring twenties (feathers, beads, and spangles) to a whimsical play-within-a-play (Marie Antoinette meets Merlin) to a southern plantation (mint juleps and riding crops, anyone?), which belongs to Mame's wealthy suitor Beauregard Burnside (Richard White). He shows up just as the Depression is starting to get, well, depressing, and Mame eventually wins over his snobby, hostile family with her usual aplomb, inspiring them to raise the roof with the signature tribute song, "Mame."
The show is clearly a product of its time. The biggest cause for scandal in Mame's world is an unmarried mother-to-be: Patrick's dowdy nanny Agnes Gooch (Kat Ramsburg), who undergoes an Act Two transformation when Mame and Vera encourage her to "live!" Ramsburg is nothing short of a powerhouse, tearing into her solo with hurricane force. Meanwhile, shortly after Agnes' condition is revealed, the grown-up Patrick (a bland Matt Owen) falls into the clutches of a group of Connecticut snobs. Once again, it's Mame to the rescue! She publicly stands by Agnes, thus alienating the Yankees and saving Patrick from a one-way ticket to Squaresville.
Like the elephantine Agnes struggling to lower herself onto her benefactor's ultramodern couch, Mame sometimes threatens to founder under its own weight. But all in all, the 5th Avenue puts on a fun party: the singing is top drawer, the place settings are exquisite, and the evening gowns are to die for.
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