Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Charles Busch as Auntie Mame"

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note: entire contents copyright 2004 by Carl A. Rossi


"AUNTIE MAME"

by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee
based on the novel by Patrick Dennis
directed by Richard Sabellico

Auntie Mame … Charles Busch
Vera Charles; Mother Burnside … Penny Fuller
Agnes Gooch; Radcliffe; Reginald; Sally Cato … Gordana Rashovich
Nora Muldoon; Cousin Moultrie; Mrs. Upton … Jennifer Harmon
Gloria Upson; Athena; Macy’s Shopper; Maid; Emory MacDougall … Susan Pourfar
Pegeen Ryan; Dr. Futzheimer; Woman; Emory MacDougall … Kerrie Blaisdell
Lindsay; Lord Dudley; Beauregard … Patrick Ryan Sullivan
Bishop; Mr. Babcock; Stage Manager; Mr. Loomis;
Cousin Jeff; Brian O’Bannion … Victor Slezak
Patrick; Ralph Devine; Handyman; Butler; Groom … Max Von Essen
Ito; Theater Manager; Dr. Shurr; A Vet; Mr. Upton … Michael McCormick
Young Patrick; Michael … Tolan Aman

A critic once wrote that Mae West, like Chinatown and Grant’s Tomb, should be seen at least once; the same could be said of acclaimed actor-playwright Charles Busch who is delightful in the title role of AUNTIE MAME at the Ogunquit Playhouse.

Auntie Mame, as any growing boy will tell you, is the goodhearted madcap who raises her nephew Patrick according to her maxim of “Life is a banquet and most poor sons of bitches are starving to death”, steering him through the Jazz Age and the Depression and into the Eisenhower years (what did she do to keep her “little love” out of WWII?); she whisks him away from an imposed life of Babbitt-dom at the eleven o’clock hour. Through Mame, author Patrick Dennis took a (closeted) stance against the conformity of his times and his fairy godmother has spread his message from page to stage to film to musical to film over the decades but is now quite tame; Mame's cult/camp status has kept her head above water and thus it should come as no surprise that Mr. Busch has taken her up, automatically revitalizing Mame’s flamboyance and bringing a new dimension to Mr. Dennis’ plea to embrace the unconventional. Mr. Busch proves that AUNTIE MAME still has legs --- and his own aren’t so bad, either.

When I lived in New York, I was fortunate to have seen the now-legendary Charles Ludlum in several roles before the end of his sadly-shortened life; Mr. Busch has long been considered Mr. Ludlum’s successor but only now have I caught up with him; whether or not he is bawdy or outrageous elsewhere, Mr. Busch is tasteful and proper in Ogunquit; his Mame glows with bubbling merriment throughout the evening (the only zingers are two phallic-shaped ashtrays being substituted for the scripted fetus-shaped ones). Indeed, Mr. Busch is so consistent in his characterization that the man in a dress soon vanishes and a woman (or someone woman-like) remains: here, a shy, horsy gal who for all of her life-pronouncements is herself rather skittish towards emotional commitment (save for Patrick); her reticence may result from Mr. Dennis’ forced compromise with his era (he could talk about but not show Mame’s reputed goings-on) but not until seeing Mr. Busch’s performance have I considered that Mame may not be all that she preaches --- and his interpretation works. Mr. Busch’s voice is not a rich one nor does he try for a feminine-sounding register --- his idea of an inflection is the occasional falsetto note --- but his face is wonderfully expressive; I had the good fortune to be seated practically in Mr. Busch’s lap where I enjoyed his subtle hamming in close-up (the audience at the back of the house, no doubt, witnessed a different performance). Mr. Busch’s illusion is aided and abetted for the most part by Michael Bottari & Ronald Case (costumes), Paul Huntley (wigs) and Judith Marsh, N.Y.C. (hats and millinery); he may start out as Ronald McDonald in lamé but settles in next door to Ann Sheridan (children, ask your parents).

Under Richard Sabellico’s direction, the Ogunquit production also glows rather than sparkles but it doesn’t, ahem, drag for a moment and a sterling ensemble provides a well-crafted frame in which Mr. Busch can gesture and swirl. The multiple role-playing allows each member to take the stage at least once (some lines have been redistributed due to resulting character changes) --- among them, Penny Fuller, Gordana Rashovich and Susan Pourfar are very funny as, respectively, Mame’s theatrical crony Vera Charles, her sad-sack secretary Agnes Gooch and Patrick’s over-glazed fiancée Gloria; among the less-colorful male characters, Victor Slezak is a fine protean fellow, especially in his lion-maned Brian O’Bannion, given to shrill tantrums, and Patrick Ryan Sullivan makes a handsome, drawling Beauregard. Though he declaims his lines throughout the evening, Tolan Aman is enchanting as Young Patrick; his droll making of a martini is one of those hushed moments in the theatre where the star, the play and the troubled world outside are forgotten for a few moments.

"Charles Busch as Auntie Mame" (28 June-10 July)
OGUNQUIT PLAYHOUSE
Route 1, Ogunquit, ME
1 (207) 646-5511

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