Auntie Mame

with Charles Busch & Peggy Cass

American Place Theatre - Oct. 1998

Review by John Kenrick

Technically speaking, Auntie Mame is not a musical. However, it inspired one of my favorite musicals, and a recent benefit reading of the play featured a cast brimming with Broadway musical stars. Add to this the fact that the original play was structured like a musical and it’s understandable why a review of an Auntie Mame reading would appear on Musicals 101.

With the film version of Auntie Mame frequently on cable TV and readily available on video, most people might assume that there is little point to reviving the stage version. A benefit reading of the play presented on Sept. 14th by Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids proved otherwise. And it was high time that someone new followed in Rosalind Russell’s hallowed footsteps. That the newest "Mame Dennis" should be a brilliantly gifted man only added to the fun.

With the episodic structure and lengthy cast list one would expect in a 50’s musical, Lawrence & Lee’s Auntie Mame is the perfect choice for an all-star reading. Nunsense’s Marilyn Farina was a camp hoot as Mother Burnside, Get Smart’s Barbara Feldon got the southern bitchiness of Sally Cato just right, Emily Loesser was perfect as the insipid Gloria Upson, and comic veterans Marcia Lewis (Grease, Chicago) and Dick Latessa (Will Rogers Follies, Damn Yankees) were scene stealers as Gloria’s hopelessly hateful parents.

Harvey Evans had a mugging fest as Ito, and Nanny & the Professor’s Juliet Mills displayed a well-tuned brogue as the long-suffering Nora. Ms. Mills’ real-life husband Maxwell Caulfield (Grease 2) made a handsomely hateful Brian O’Bannion (mercy but the man is gorgeous!), and cabaret star David Staller was warmly appealing as publisher Lindsay Woolsey.

Everyone attending this reading was eager to see Peggy Cass, the original Agnes Gooch, in the role she created and defined over forty years ago. From her first devastating deadpan delivery of "I’m from Speedo," she had the room screaming with laughter. What a timeless trooper! No one can match this comedienne at playing the ultimate schlep, and she literally stopped the show on several occasions.

And, most importantly, there was Charles Busch, proving yet again that he is a star for all seasons. I've seen many talented women attempt this role, but none who brought out both the comedy and sentiment in Mame Dennis so successfully. Busch splashed equal amounts of glamour, humor and warmth into every scene, giving a bravura performance that deserves far more than a one-night run. This was easily the finest work he’s ever done, and I've enjoyed him in all of his best roles. It would be a tragedy if Mr. Busch does not get to play Auntie Mame in a full New York production.

Alright folks, there it is – a commercially proven product and a box-office star, just waiting for someone to put the pieces together. Is there a producer in the cyber house?!?

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