- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 1, 2006

Christine Baranski brought unexpected sexiness to the role of Mrs. Lovett in “Sweeney Todd” during the Sondheim Festival at the Kennedy Center in 2002, making the meat-pie purveyor and the throat-slitting barber (played with sinuous malevolence by Brian Stokes Mitchell) one of the hottest and oddest couples in musical theater.

With “Mame,” Miss Baranski once again steps into a role originated by actress Angela Lansbury. This time around she does not reinvent the part of the glamorous auntie, but instead gives a nod to all the Mames that came before her.

Miss Baranski’s effortless sophistication and slinky figure make this the most youthful Mame in recent memory. Her distinctive, drop-dead way with a line — the manner in which she pronounces the name of her Asian butler, Ito (Alan Muraoka), is itself worth the price of admission, and the witty delicacy of her double takes are happily abundant in this 40th anniversary production, directed with show-stopper dynamism by Signature Theatre artistic director Eric Schaeffer.

The leading lady is also feather-light on her feet, but her singing wavers in quality. Sometimes she attacks and owns a song the way a proper star would, while at other times she backs into a number as if she is still the marvelous comedic actress who’s always in demand — for non-singing character roles.

Actresses with less-than-stellar voices have performed “Mame” before, like Lucille Ball in the regrettable 1974 movie version — but even she croaked out the songs with command and bravado. Miss Baranski is stylish and soignee throughout, but sometimes she recedes into the background when Mame should always be front and center.

These periods of reticence allow for others to blaze into the spotlight, notably Harriet Harris as Mame’s best friend, Vera Charles, a liquor-loving thespian with a prickly, patrician voice. Combining wicked drollery with a gift for physical comedy, Miss Harris puts you in mind of Lynn Fontanne crossed with Mercedes McCambridge.

Alice Skinner as the frowzy nanny Agnes Gooch is also leading-lady material, lending her shimmering singing voice to “St. Bridget” and “Gooch’s Song.” Harrison Chad, playing Mame’s young nephew, Dennis, adds unusual sensitivity to the role, clearly adoring his aunt but also conflicted by these strong feelings. Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside can be a throwaway, but Jeff McCarthy brings gentility and authority to the role of Mame’s late-in-life, loving savior.

Despite Miss Baranski’s skittish moments, “Mame” is “Mame,” an infectious, all-American classic that composer and lyricist Jerry Herman almost orders you to enjoy. This is musical theater as extravaganza — a parade of get-happy, upbeat songs that provide an endless and dizzying succession of climactic moments. You cannot help but succumb to the can-do sunshine of such songs as “Open A New Window,” “It’s Today,” “That’s How Young I Feel” and the exhilarating build of the title song.

The slower songs, as well, have an anthem-like quality, especially the majestic torch song, “If He Walked Into My Life,” and the more plaintive “My Best Girl.” “Mame” is a feel-good show without apologies, and Mr. Schaeffer goes full-tilt capturing the high spirits in a series of “can you top this?” musical sequences that maintain the breakneck momentum.

While Warren Carlyle’s choreography is fast-paced and athletic, some of the dancers appeared to have trouble with the steps, and the show lost some crispness and edge. Walt Spangler’s set, on the other hand, is an eye-catching and often humorous commentary on the changing tastes of high-class home dcor from the 1920s through the late ‘40s.

The Kennedy Center’s revival of “Mame” is splashy, no-holds-barred fun. If it had brought something new to the venerable musical, the results might have been spectacular. Instead, the show is what Mame herself would never have been — perfectly respectable.

***

WHAT: “Mame,” music and lyrics by Jerry Herman

WHERE: Eisenhower Theatre, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, 1:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through July 2.

TICKETS: $25 to $90

PHONE: 202/467-4600

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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