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TV star Loretta Swit, who won two Emmy Awards for her performance as U.S. Army Major Margaret "Hot Lips" Houlihan in "M*A*S*H" (1972-83), is a superb actress in any medium. But who knew that she could sing with such gusto and dance up a storm?
Swit, who will be 66 years old next Tuesday, looks, acts and, more importantly, moves like a much, much younger woman in North Carolina Theatre's magnificent 2003 season-ending production of Mame. Swit's crowd-pleasing characterization of the legendary Manhattan free spirit Mame Dennis is an absolute joy to watch. When the play begins, Mame is the ultimate Roaring Twenties party animal, swilling bathtub gin by the gallon and dancing the night away in her swanky Manhattan digs. But, all too soon, the 1929 Stock Market Crash decimates her fortune; and the still-glamorous former chorus girl must find steady — if unglamorous — employment to support herself, her 10-year-old nephew and ward Patrick Dennis (Justin Schwartz), Patrick's absent-minded nanny Agnes Gooch (Maria Totten), and Mame's ersatz-Japanese houseman Ito (Gregory Dale Sanders).
Life becomes a struggle for the temporarily grounded Social Butterfly — who is gorgeously attired in a dazzling array of glad rags from Costume World. Once Gooch delivers young Patrick to her doorstep, Mame must also contend with the wishes of huffy ultra-conservative banker — and trustee of her brother's will — Dwight Babcock (Bob Dorian). Babcock wants to send Patrick away to an ultra-conservative boy's school, where he can hobnob selectively with the "right people" and avoid the very undesirables who form the core of Mame Dennis' flamboyant inner circle. How is Auntie Mame to keep her highly impressionable young nephew from becoming an insufferable snob and bigot like Babcock?
While Swit provides the glamour and the star power to make NCT's production of MAME into a box-office bonanza, frequent NCT guest director/choreographer Stephen Terrell takes a fresh new look at this marvelous 1966 musical, and Terrell and assistant choreographer Neal R. Lee stage the show with considerable brio against a colorful background of scenery drops from Pittsburgh CLO, Fullerton CLO, and Wright Scenic. From the show's high-kicking production numbers to intimate moments between a concerned aunt and her newly orphaned nephew, Stephen Terrell provides a steady hand at the helm.
Costumes originally created for the Paper Mill Playhouse, supplemented by outfits especially designed for this production by costumer Denis Schumaker, dress the stellar supporting cast of Mame to the nines. Lighting designer Craig Stelzenmuller artfully lights the production, and musical director conductor McCrae Hardy and orchestra provide spirited accompaniment. But Sound designer Jonathan Parke was still having trouble with Maria Totten's body mic Tuesday night, so her vocals on "Gooch's Song" faded in and out, in and out.
Justin Schwartz is truly superb as the irrepressible Patrick Dennis, age 10; and Warren Freeman is an absolute delight as Patrick Dennis, age 19-29. Maria Totten is hilarious as near-sighted nanny Agnes Gooch, and African-American actor Gregory Dale Sanders cleverly banishes most of the offensive characteristics of the Oriental stereotype from his charming portrayal of Ito.
Hal Davis cuts a fine and very handsome figure as Mame's beau and later husband Beauregard Jackson Picket Burnside, a wealthy and adventurous son of the Old South; and Norm Birdsall is good as affable book publisher M Lindsay Woolsey and a real hoot, in drag, as crabby and cantankerous Mother Burnside.
Bob Dorian is terrific as Mame's nemesis, banker Babcock; but it is Sheila Smith who steals the show with her outrageous antics as Mame's closest friend, confidant, and drinking buddy, Vera Charles, the perpetually tipsy baritone-voiced leading lady of the American musical theater. Smith's appearance at the curtain call Tuesday night triggered a hearty standing ovation.
Sarah Ray is scream as mop-topped Sarah Upson, the silly stuck-up airheaded Connecticut girl everyone hates, except the inexperienced in love adolescent Patrick Dennis. Vinny Genna and Alison Lawrence are very funny as Gloria's ultra-snobbish parents. And Heather Powell is a pip as interior decorator Pegeen Ryan, the lovely colleen whom Patrick should be pursuing instead of Gloria.
Mary Cuchetti and Ryan Meldrum contribute fine comic cameos as an outraged beauty-shop proprietor and her over-the-top assistant Gregor. Cuchetti delightfully doubles as gossipy Cousin Fan opposite Vinny Genna and Jennifer Hoegemeyer as stuffy Uncle Jeff and hot-blooded Sally Cato, Beau Burnside's unforgiving former fiancée, in a brief but memorable segment in which Beau takes Mame to meet the old folks Down South in his native Georgia.
If you go to Mame primarily to see Loretta Swit, you will return home singing the praises not only of the show's star, but her outstanding supporting cast. Mame is a must-see musical. Don't miss it.
North Carolina Theatre presents Mame Thursday-Friday, Oct. 30-31, at 8 p.m.; and Saturday, Nov. 1, at 2 and 8 p.m. in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium in the BTI Center for the Performing Arts, 1 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $18-$60. 919/831-6950 (NCT Box Office) or 919/834-4000 (TicketMaster) or http://www.ticketmaster.com/. North Carolina Theatre: http://www.nctheatre.com/TheShowsandTicketPrices80.html [inactive 9/04]. Internet Broadway Database: http://www.ibdb.com/show.asp?ID=5770. Loretta Swit: http://us.imdb.com/name/nm0842794/. "M*A*S*H" (1972-83 TV Series): http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0068098/. M*A*S*H (1970 Film): http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0066026/.