‘Mame’ at Bucks County Playhouse by Eric Denver

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You “Open a New Window” at the beautiful and newly renovated historical landmark – Bucks County Playhouse (BCP) in New Hope, PA., and look what happens- a fabulous production of Jerry Herman’s Mame. After reviewing other shows in the Philadelphia Theater community, and to share the successful efforts undertaken by its new Producing Director, Jeff Bernstein, this is the first time that DCMetroTheaterArts is reviewing a show at this venue, and the first of many more to come. Jesse Cline, the Artistic Director of the Media Theatre, directed this production of Mame at The Media Theatre, where it opened on April 17, 2013 and closed on May 19th, and then moved it northeast 50 miles to BCP, where it opened 4 days later on May 23, 2013.

Matthew Wojtal (left, holding Jennifer Williams), Lea DeLaria and Andrea McArdle. Photo by Mandee Kuenzle.
Matthew Wojtal (left, holding Jennifer Williams), Lea DeLaria and Andrea McArdle. Photo by Mandee Kuenzle.

Mame opens during the heyday of the 1920s. Mame (Andrea McArdle) is an adventurous spirit – living for the moment and certainly not worrying about tomorrow. Five minutes into the show, the scene shifts to a house party at Mame Dennis’ Beekman Place apartment. In the middle of the evening frivolities, her 10 year-old nephew, Patrick (JD Triolo), appears and the two immediately strike up a special relationship. Babcock (Kelly Briggs), his legally appointed guardian, insists that Patrick attend his alma mater located in an upper-crust neighborhood in Massachusetts while Mame has other ideas. Vera Charles (Lea DeLaria) appears and steals the scene with her comedic talents and continues to make the audience roar for the entire time she is on the stage. McArdle and DeLaria make a great team and play off each other throughout the production. It’s a joy to watch these two Broadway veterans enjoying themselves. As a loving bond ensues between Mame and Patrick, and we are introduced to the naive Gooch, and Vera’s hysterics, the show is filled with great songs and more humorous and moving plot twists.

Andrea McArdle and Lea DeLaria are outstanding actresses, comediennes  and won my heart and respect instantly. McArdle does a superb job of convincing the audience that she is well aware of her responsibilities of bringing up her nephew, as long as she does it her way. Her vocal range and perfect diction in “We Need a Little Christmas,” “That’s How Young I Feel,” and “If He Walked into My Life” were impressive.

Using both her facial expressions and body movements, DeLaria never allowed any comedic opportunity to pass her by, and the audience responded enthusiastically. McArdle and DeLaria were hilarious with “Moon Song,” but my favorite moment was the harmonies in their duet “Bosom Buddies.”

Triolo plays the Younger Patrick first shyly and sweet, and then after Mame mentors him, he becomes more confident and assertive. Triolo has a wonderful sweet voice, especially in his rendition of “My Best Girl.” As the Older Patrick (now 18), Helen Hayes Award winner Matthew Wojtal (part of the award-winning ensemble in Signature Theatre’s production of Hairspray), performs a rendition of “My Best Girl,” which shows off his lush tenor.

Jennfier Bissell is hysterical as Agnes Gooch and blossoms in “Gooch’s Song.” Andy Joos’ heartwarming and loving performance as Beauregarde, or ‘Beau’ as Mame calls him, lights up the stage as he serenades his new wife with the title song, “Mame.” Micki Sharpe is outrageous as Beauregarde’s conniving mother who tries to ‘outfox’ Mame. Scott Langdon and Anne Connors are convincing as Mr. and Mrs. Upson, and Courtney Brunnell is deliciously obnoxious as Patrick’s fiancée Gloria Upson. Marshall Factora is endearing as the loyal Ito.

At intermission, I spoke with two members of a group of 36 Andrea McArdle “fans.”  With Andrea’s mother and father, as well as their family and friends in the audience, they were all there to show their support for their Philadelphia-born superstar. And she continues to be a superstar since first taking the theatre world by storm playing Annie in the Tony Award-winning musical Annie.

I ran out of fingers counting how many costumes Mame wore throughout the show. Considering there were 16 scenes in the production, Costume Designer Nicole V. Moody took advantage of each scene change to show-off new creations she provided especially for Andrea McArdle. The most outlandish outfit of the evening for me was Gooche’s makeover from a virgin to a swinger decked-out in a stunning  red gown.

Kudos to Scenic Designer Todd Craft and Videographer Emily O’Keefe. While the overture is played, BCP utilizes a revolving digital background screen of various 1920’s New York street scenes, which eventually culminated with a “backdrop” of the opening scene – Beekman Place. White cascading steps are strategically placed on stage with other furniture to support the backdrop. Together, both digitized background and the stage accoutrements provide depth to each scene, in almost a 3D effect. As young Patrick and Gooch make their way along the streets of New York to Mame’s apartment, they harmonize together the show’s first song “St. Bridget.” A videographic insert shows them walking up the steps of Mame’s apartment complex and entering the front door, where they magically make their live appearance from stage right. This technique of using pictorial semantic backdrops interspersed with the actual sets – moving on and off stage – provides the audience an appreciation for the scenic designer’s best efforts.

Jennifer Bissell and JD Triolo. Photo by andee Kuenzle.
Jennifer Bissell and JD Triolo. Photo by andee Kuenzle.

Choreographer Dann Dunn does a superb job of incorporating appropriate 1920’s dance movements allowing the ensemble to demonstrate their ability to simultaneously advance the plot. Helping him achieve this balanced mix was Musical Director Tom Fosnocht, who provided double duty on the piano/keyboard.    Tom and his nine musicians played Jerry Herman’s melodic score with passion, and never overpowered the performers.

BCP directly impacts Broadway theater history. Nestled in the Northeast Corner on the Pennsylvania/New Jersey border is the 1.4 square mile town of New Hope, PA, about 30 miles northeast of Philadelphia. Its basic industry is tourism, and has a multitude of restaurants,  about 20 restaurants within a 10-minute walk of the Playhouse – it’s what the locals refer to as a “restaurant for any occasion.”

In 1939, with the help of Broadway composer Moss Hart, Springtime for Henry opened as its first show. Over the next 70 years, a number of the most notable Broadway stars could be found on its stage. What I discovered to be most intriguing is that Bea Arthur and Angela Lansbury, who both won Tony Awards for their performances as Mame and Vera in the original Broadway production of Mame, have performed on the BCP stage in separate shows.

The renovated Bucks County Playhouse. Photo by Mandee Kuenzle.
The renovated Bucks County Playhouse. Photo by Mandee Kuenzle.

While still functioning as a theater, BCP had some challenges after 1989, without its requisite Actors Equity banner, and eventually closed in 2010. On July 2, 2012, after a $3,000,000 renovation and winning back the coveted right to produce Actors Equity shows once again, BCP presented A Grand Night for Singing, which includes thirty Rodgers and Hammerstein hits. Since both composers were huge supporters of the Playhouse and had homes within 10 miles of its location, BCP selected this specific show.

You have only until June 9 to catch Mame. The Bucks County Playhouse offers a nice getaway for a weekend from the hustle and bustle of the big city. I enjoyed their Broadway quality without the NYC prices. BCP has five more summer productions and another eleven events before the close of 2013.

Mame plays through Sunday, June 9, 2013 at the Bucks County Playhouse – 70 South Main Street, in New Hope, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (215) 862-2121, or purchase them online.