Mame, now being presented at Goodspeed Musicals, was a substantial hit in its initial Broadway outing, and hasn’t been seen on the Great White Way in nearly 30 years. Initially, that may seem strange; the show is based on a perennially popular movie (Auntie Mame), the book by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee is wildly humorous, and the score represents Jerry Herman at his witty and tuneful best.
But for this show to truly work, you need a larger-than-life female performer of a certain age with enough charisma to carry an entire show on her shoulders. Such performers are rare, and Goodspeed is lucky to have found one in Louise Pitre.
Pitre — who is best known for her work as Donna Sheridan in the original Broadway company of Mamma Mia! — would seem to be an unusual choice for the role, a free spirit thrust into the role of caretaker for her orphaned nephew, Patrick (Eli Baker). And, in truth, at times she carries herself more like Rizzo from Grease than Mame Dennis from Beekman Place. Indeed, one needs to let go of images of her celebrated predecessors, Rosalind Russell and Angela Lansbury, to fully accept Pitre.
But Pitre softens up considerably over the course of the show, and eventually gives the production its dynamic central motor. Ultimately, she makes for a vibrant and heartfelt Mame, particularly during “If He Walked Into My Life,” one of the all-time great 11 o’clock numbers, which Pitre delivers with power and pathos.
The production’s other main strengths lie in the performances of the two other central females on stage. Broadway stalwart Judy Blazer is a riot as Vera Charles, with her dramatic features punctuating her deliciously droll delivery. But the real scene stealer here is Kirsten Wyatt as Agnes Gooch. Wyatt manages to make Gooch downright adorable without being cloying or grating, and her rendition of “Gooch’s Song” rightfully gets the biggest ovation of the night.
Director Ray Roderick and choreographer Vince Pesce start the show off with a burst of energy with “It’s Today,” which is full of smart, brisk staging. Some of the later numbers come off a bit plodding, though, particularly the “Open a New Window” montage, which goes on entirely too long. Technically, the production felt like it needs a few more performances to gel, with numerous admittedly minor scenery mishaps occurring throughout the night.
As for the piece itself, the show clearly reflects the 1960s propensity for obligatory title songs, and the number “Mame,” although insidiously catchy, has insufficient setup from the book. During a fox hunt, Mame somehow manages to catch the fox without killing it, and this causes a collective change of heart among the previously hostile southerners in attendance. The entire cast then launches into the now famous line about coaxing the blues right out of the horn. And why? “Because [she’s] done more for the South than anyone since Robert E. Lee.” Um, it’s just a fox hunt, folks.
But such quibbles really seem to miss the point. Mame is about the central philosophy of the title character: “Life is a banquet and most poor sons-of-bitches are starving to death.” And there’s plenty of life to be had at Goodspeed for audiences to sample or gorge on as they see fit.