AUNTIE ESTABLISHMENT

Something about the Roaring Twenties still seems naughty--and in the best sense of the word. Maybe it's just nostalgia for a simpler time, but even the wild flappers, the speakeasies and the social experimentation had a much more innocent feel than our own jaded, cynical era. That's why Mame, the tale of an extravagant grand dame with a taste for freedom, remains so appealing. The quirky production now at the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities is encumbered by an execrable sound system and a lame ending. But it still offers classy comedy, high spirits, and a number of fine voices.

The eccentric Mame Dennis throws cocktail parties every night at her New York mansion and invites all the most glamorous types over for stimulants and stimulating conversation--her best friend is Broadway star and notorious lush Vera Charles. Into this mad whirl comes Mame's ten-year-old nephew Patrick, newly orphaned, with his nanny, Agnes Gooch. Gooch is a nerdy sweetheart with absolutely no experience of men, and Mame's sophistication surprises and delights her. Patrick also adores his aunt, especially when she introduces him to the "Auntie Mame School of Life," which includes his enrollment in a nudist academy, instructions on how to make the perfect martini and a course in Nightlife 101.

Unfortunately for young Patrick, his sober-sided old dad stipulated in his will that a banker named Babcock should oversee the boy's education. So when Babcock finds that the kid is learning too much about the birds and the bees (not to mention the spawning habits of fish), he hauls the kid to boarding school and away from Mame.

Shortly afterward the Great Depression hits, Mame's fortune is wiped out, and every job she tries only proves her to be incompetent at everything except being herself. But when a Southern millionaire falls for her, the two marry and begin the longest honeymoon in history, traveling around the world while young Patrick grows up at prep school and then college. When Patrick falls in love with an upper-class nincompoop, the widowed Mame rushes in to save her beloved nephew from himself--and she brings all her closest friends with her to help. Eccentricity has its rewards.

Rachel deBenedet's terrific voice and fabulous carriage give Mame all the poise and joie de vivre one could hope for. But as good as she is in the song and dance routines, deBenedet isn't a terribly inventive actress and a number of her funniest lines go nowhere. She projects sweetness and extravagance well enough, but never the worldly sophistication we expect from Mame (she could learn from the greatest Mame of all, Rosalind Russell, whose movie version is available on video).

Deborah Persoff, on the other hand, makes Vera Charles roil in high comedy through saucy nights and painful morning hangovers. She's at her best in the funniest song of the evening, "Bosom Buddies," in which Vera and Mame knock each other. DeBenedet is too sweet, while Persoff keeps a wry, deliciously catty abrasiveness going throughout.

Katie Richardson gets Gooch off to a slow start--she just isn't awkward or goofy enough at first. But she warms to the task, in large part because she has the adorable Andrew Shoffner (the star of Theatre on Broadway's Psycho Beach Party) to play off as Mame's butler, Ito. He's always a riveting comic presence.

The most energetic moments in this show--as in so many other musicals--come when the whole company is on stage singing and dancing their respective hearts out. But the best of these whole-cast tunes ("Open a New Window" and "Mame") both come in the first act, while the most notable comic songs ("Bosom Buddies" and "Gooch's Song") take place in the second act. As a result, the whole show feels a bit off-kilter, and the ending is oddly anti-climactic. Still, the set design by Lori Sullivan Worthman and the costumes by Eaves Brooks have plenty of grace and spunk, making the look of the show all very arty and bright--light entertainment with a touch of style.

 
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