Fasten your seat-belts, we are about to take off! Evanston's Light Opera Works (soon to be named Music Theatre Works) offered up their second production of the 2016 season – Mame last night and a new star was born! Nancy Hays as everyone's favorite Auntie Mame celebrates the Roaring 20s, overcomes tragedy and sails through life without missing a fad or a dance step. From the moment she descended the circular staircase with her trumpet until the final curtain she had the audience firmly in her hands. A consummate singer as well as actress Ms. Hays can belt out a song and turn on a dime to play a highly charged emotional love scene with little Patrick (Zachary Scott Fewkes). Ms. Hays has the talent to capture and keep her audience but all of the time engaging with her colleagues in the show. She is a tiny woman with big talent and a big voice and never once drops her energy in a show where she is on stage all of the time. Even though the stage was filled with so much talent, Ms. Hays continually drew my eyes to her all evening. Famous Mames through the years have included a glittering assembly of stars: Celeste Holm, Juliet Prouse, Susan Hayward, Ginger Rogers, Ann Southern, Carol Lawrence and Patrice Munsel and Ms. Hays embodies them all.
Artistic Director Rudy Hogenmiller has done his very best casting for Mame. Usually there are weak links in his casting but this time not a single one. It plays like his 110 in the Shade and The Music Man. His direction keeps the almost three hour story moving at lightning speed. I never looked at my watch once!
As we all know, Mame, originally titled My Best Girl, is based on the 1955 novel Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis and the musical, Mame opened on Broadway in 1966 at the Winter Garden and ran for 1,508 performances. It was nominated for eight Tony Awards and won for Best Actress in a Musical (Angela Lansbury), Best Featured Actress in a Musical (Bea Arthur) and Best Featured Actor in a Musical (Frankie Michaels). Set in New York and spanning the Great Depression and World War II, it focuses on Mr. Dennis' eccentric Mame Dennis, whose famous motto is "Life is a banquet and most poor sons of bitches are starving to death." Her fabulous life with her wealthy friends is interrupted when the young son of her late brother (Mr. Dennis) arrives to live with her. They cope with the Depression in a series of adventures. Book is by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee and music and lyrics by the all-American Jerry Herman.
Mame was inspired by the success of the 1956 Broadway comedy Auntie Mame and subsequent 1958 film version starring Rosalind Russell, as well as the 1955 novel by Patrick Dennis. After Mary Martin and numerous actresses turned down the now iconic role, it went to Angela Lansbury who made the part legendary.
Supporting Ms. Hays are Light Opera stalwarts and favorites Alicia Berneche (Agnes Gooch) and Mary Robin Roth (Vera Charles) complete this female triumvirate. I have thrilled so many times to Ms. Berneche's performances, always the blushing ingénue, falling in love on queue with that crystal clear voice but in Mame, she turns in a very funny and comic performance. She is the consummate actress who portrays her characters from her heart while her voice comes from the heavens. She is an opera singer and has appeared at Light Opera Works as Marion in The Music Man, Mabel in The Pirates of Penzance, Phyllis in Iolanthe and Maynard in Yeoman of the Guard. Ms. Roth is just the opposite. Big, bold and brassy, she played Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly!, Rose in Gypsy, Carlotta in Follies, and in Lyric Opera's Streetcar Named Desire. Mary Robin Roth is known throughout the country for emotionally belting her songs to the last balcony... and with heart. She is a regular at Light Opera Works' concert series. Combine these two theatrical veterans with the new comer, Ms. Hays and you have a recipe for enchantment, lots of laughs and yes, some tear, too. Bravo, ladies!
Zachary Scott Fewkes as Young Patrick turns in a Broadway performance and portrays the boy like an actor far beyond his single digit years. Mt heart broke at the end of Act I when Beauregard proposes to Mame and she accepts therefore moving Young Patrick into second place in her life. Nick Fantl is handsome and genteel Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside with just the right amount of southern syrup in his velvety deep voice.
Light Opera Works' favorite leading young man, Justin Adair who played Lt. Joe Cable last year in South Pacific and Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls returns to delight us as Older Patrick Dennis aged 19-29. Adair never fails to hit it home because not only is he a talented and gifted singer but an honest actor as well. Amanda Giles was the silly and brainless Gloria Upson and played her role with the just the right of inanity. All of the other artists were in topnotch form and I said earlier – all so perfectly cast.
Under the ever so competent direction of maestro Roger Bingamon, his 26-piece orchestra knocks your socks off! At the conclusion of the overture, the sold-out opening night was completely under his control and applauding madly. I always thrill to the strings but this time around for Mame, we are treated to a 7-piece brass section which matched the brassiness of the show so well. My most favorite songs and dance numbers include: Open a New Window, If He Walked into My Life, My Best Girl, We Need a Little Christmas and the rousing production number Mame. The company excelled in this number and the stage was filled by a highly talented young singing and dancing ensemble. I was exhausted when the curtain came down just enjoying the big, big dance number! The men were all in classic riding outfits: hospital white jodhpurs, blood red hunting jackets and black boots with black silk riding hats; a very pleasant sight to behold.
Scenic Design is by Adam Veness, Scenic Designer, again delivered settings around the world and not once with a feeling of economy. This young designer I have watched develop in his craft over the years at Light Opera Works and he continues to grow and develop and amaze.
Choreography by Clayton Cross, Lighting by Andrew H. Meyers, Costume Design is by Robert S. Kuhn and Sound by Aaron Quick. Stage Manager is Daniel D. Drake while the evergreen, Katie Beaks is the company's Production Manager.
Mame run is short so call the Light Opera Works Box Office right now at: (847) 920-5360 or through their web site:www.lightoperaworks.org Tickets start at $34. Age 25 and younger: 1/2 price (suitable for 10 and older). Performances are: Saturday, August 20, at 8 pm, Sunday, August 21 at 2 pm, Wednesday, August 24 at 2 pm, Thursday, August 25 at 2 pm, Friday, August 26 at 8 pm, Saturday, August 27 at 8 pm, and Sunday, August 28 at 2 pm. This production is a "must-see!"
Reviewed by: Bob Sphatt