Irving — Composer and lyricist Jerry Herman, now living in retirement in Florida, has been at his best, in his long career, when translating—and personalizing—America’s culture wars into tunefully entertaining Broadway shows. This weekend, Lyric Stage in Irving brings back one of Herman’s masterful distillations of American life with a beautifully performed and produced concert version of Herman’s 1966 hit show Mame.
Herman’s most obvious treatment of the conflict of the left and the right came with La Cage aux Folles in 1983, wherein the self-appointed guardians of morality clash hilariously (and tunefully) with the world of open sexual expression and gender ambiguity. The friction of the forces of oppression and liberation are less obvious and more subtle in Mame, but present nonetheless in this tale (based on a real-life memoir) of the bond between an orphaned boy and his free-living guardian aunt. While audiences in 1966, surrounded by the daily noise of student protest, the sexual revolution, and the civil rights movement, hardly noticed the social content of Mame, this musical resonates in 2017 as the nation once again experiences the confrontation between forces of oppression and liberation.
One is apt to forget about all of that, at least consciously, as the gorgeously crafted melodies roll out, one after another, within the impeccably structured drama of Mame. While this production is clearly labeled “in concert,” the neatly efficient staging, given focus by a gently curving staircase (with orchestra and conductor onstage) puts the spotlight clearly on Herman’s brilliant songs and the smooth structure provided by playwrights Jerome Lawrence and Rober E. Lee. Herman here produced a goldmine of enduring hit songs, including “Open a New Window,” “We Need a Little Christmas,” and the grandly celebratory title number. The equally memorable—if slightly less well-known—“If He Walked into My Life Today” turns the traditional Broadway lost-love ballad into a parental lament of separation; the deliciously bitchy duet “Bosom Buddies” features a tantalizing opening motif that turned up again fifteen years later as the starting point, before heading in a different direction, for “We are what we are/I am what I am” in La Cage.)
Of course, any production of Mame centers around the title role (created in 1966 by Angela Lansbury); here Julie Johnson embodies the life-loving Mame with calm energy, a smooth vocal rendition, and the right combination of hedonism and maternal instinct. A consistently strong cast also includes Amy Mills as Mame’s side-kick Vera Charles, Christopher Sanders as Mame’s great love Burnside, and Tervor Martin, who brought along a noticeably fine lyric baritone voice, as the grownup Patrick. child actor-singer Jack Doke held up well as the young Patrick, returning at play’s end as the grown-up Patrick’s son. Among smaller roles, Deborah Brown was clearly an audience favorite, and deservedly so, as the crusty, cantankerous Mother Burnside.
For this audience member, however, the sit-up-and-listen performance came from Daron Cockrell as the dowdy nanny Gooch, with a distinctive voice that soared in several high-pitched, quick-vibrato belted moments. Though there’s not much room for subtlety in this role, Cockrell’s strong vocal performance helped create a strong presence.
Stage director and choreographer Penny Ayn Maas made every movement count and kept the audience totally engaged, and Jay Diasconducted with a strong sense of style and momentum. As always at Lyric Stage, this performance featuring full, professional, acoustic orchestra proved both entertaining and revelatory.