I'm sure you've heard the news by now: Lee Meriwether can't really coax the blues right out of the horn as Mame, at the Reagle Players through July 25. I'm not here to argue differently, although I still found Ms. Meriwether appealing (but not compelling) in the role. The old gal still has plenty of stage presence, looks smashing in gold lamé and fake fur (at left), and all but beams with a bemused warmth that elegantly solves what's usually thought of as the complicating aspect of the part: how to make this boozing glamour hound's attachment to her nephew believable. It's the other half of the role that gives Meriwether trouble - the brassy, grab-life-by-the-bugle dame that everybody is shocked, but then charmed, by. Plus, it's true, the top end of her singing voice has gone wobbly, and an understandable lack of stamina (she's seventy-something) led to her coasting through a few dance routines (she even admitted in a recent interview that "it’s the singing and dancing where I’m in trouble," which makes you wonder why she took the role).
So if you were expecting Angela Lansbury on the stage of the Waltham High School (or even Rachel York, who seems to have lit up Reagle's recent Hello, Dolly!), then you're going to be disappointed. But I have to confess that I wasn't really all that disappointed; the show sort of bobs along at an amusing level, and it never got stoopid or irritating the way the Huntington's high-powered Pirates! often did. And the packed house - most of whom were in Meriwether's age range - seemed to feel they'd gotten their money's worth, and even gave the star an affectionate standing "o."
And the whole Reagle phenomenon struck me as intriguing. I'd never made it out to the wilds of Waltham to catch them before, but felt I had to begin to now that the North Shore has gone under, and there's no fully professional local outfit dedicated to the tradition of the American musical. Reagle is, instead, a unique amalgam of community and professional forces - and with the sudden disappearance of the NSMT, they clearly sense an opportunity for themselves in the local theatre scene. The company operates out of Waltham High (where they run education programs during the school year), and generally hire in faded stars of stage and screen to topline, along with a core of other professionals (some with Broadway experience) for the supporting leads. Smaller roles go to community types (some of whom, as is often the case with community theatre, definitely have some chops), who I imagine work for little, or for free.
This means that the chorus and singing ensemble can be enormous - indeed, often in Mame there were close to fifty people singing and dancing on stage. But they're all impeccably turned out, in costumes and sets that are billed as a "recreation" of the original staging - a claim that I find roughly credible. Indeed, part of the interest of Mame was how it felt like a kind of time capsule (with even its original audience watching from the gallery!). It's obvious that this is a theatre company in the nostalgia business, openly disinterested in "new forms," that would never in a million years proclaim there should be "no more masterpieces." The masterpieces are just fine by Reagle - and by me, too.
Not that Mame is a masterpiece - but like many Jerry Herman shows, it's schmaltzily entertaining, and can claim its own place in Broadway, and even American, history. It's no secret, of course, that Herman is gay; he's been battling AIDS for years (kind of like Angel in Rent, dontchaknow), and his longtime lover died of the disease. Add to that the fact that he's a self-taught Jewish kid from Jersey City (rather than from Columbia by way of MOMA), and you can sense immediately how he all but personifies that naïve, lower-bourgeois faith in the "classy," "glamorous" "magic of theatre" that I personally hope never deserts the stage, but that causes the lips of lefty intellectuals to reflexively curl in contempt.
Now it's true I'd never have invited Antonin Artaud to a revival of Mame (although it might have done him good; he was, after all, a kind of drag queen). But I can't ignore its touchingly serious content. All of "Jerry's girls" were, essentially, middle-aged gay men in drag, and you can sense an arc from Hello, Dolly! to La Cage aux Folles that ends with the leading lady finally revealed as, yes, literally a middle-aged gay man in drag, preening in a happy paradise of bourgeois adorability: she/he is both a wild bohemian and a loving mother and wife who just wants to live a little, dammit!
That Mame fits in almost the exact center of this arc makes it fascinating; with it, Herman seems to take his first half-step out of the closet. By turns he hints that his title character is a lesbian (although her sexual allegiances shift at will), a some-time nudist, and maybe a Communist, as well as an obvious alcoholic, and the script flirts with such then-edgy material as unwed mothers and the occasional bit of "blue" language. We slowly realize that Mame is meant as a free-living fantasy figure - a bohemian kaleidoscope of such charisma that even the bigoted crackers of the deep South and the country-club Republicans of Connecticut (Herman sets her up against both) cannot withstand her fabulousness. Needless to say, Herman never actually brings any African-Americans (or any other minorities) onstage during these bizarre red state/blue state love-ins, so they can hardly be taken as genuinely progressive statements. But they still exude a strange wistfulness; they're like a dream of Caucasian co-existence without all the attendant political baggage.
And much of that dream does, in fact, come true over at Reagle, due to the skill of the supporting cast, and the generally sensitive, if not quite crisp, direction of Frank Roberts. There's a broad but crack comic turn from Maureen Brennan, who has played on Broadway (and currently teaches at Boston Conservatory), as well as an archly acid one from Maryann Zschau as Mame's "bosom buddy," Vera Charles (Zschau even gamely leads Meriwether through a softshoe). As Patrick Dennis, the innocent nephew who falls into Mame's distracted care, young Troy Costa is absolutely adorable (and poised as an old pro), while Curly Glynn brings a beautifully expressively singing voice to the all-grown-up Patrick (Mr. Glynn hasn't quite found the key to the acting side of the role, however - as an adult, Patrick should seem more internally torn about his snobby Connecticut bride). There's more impressive singing from R. Glen Michell as Mame's Southern beau, and in general the chorus came off well (particularly in their rich, resonant version of the title tune), as did the "core" corps of trained dancers. (Sometimes the promenades and kicks of everybody else got a little tiresome, though.)
So there you have it - Reagle could be on the verge of a new phase of importance locally, but this particular production stumbles, largely due to its star. The real news, however, may be the curious community/professional balance that Reagle seems to have perfected. Right now, I'd argue that the company may, indeed, be too committed to a nostalgic, "time capsule" aesthetic. But at the same time, the group clearly has a deep bond of trust with its community - in part because members of that community are also right up there on its stage. So can Reagle grow aesthetically without betraying that trust, or that commitment? Could its unique business model even become a template for preserving the tradition of the American musical? Perhaps - but it will require brighter star turns than the one shining in Mame.