By Marcina Zaccaria

This holiday season started looking a little brighter, after viewing Mame on BroadwayHD.

While I was certain I knew the words and the music, I had forgotten the socio-politically charged story, first on Broadway in 1966, and then at the movies in 1974.  Set at the height of the Ziegfeld Follies era, just before the Stock Market Crash of 1929, Auntie Mame, played brilliantly by Lucille Ball, encounters the best and the brightest of the theater world before maintaining her standing in a posh, Beekman Place apartment. 

Lucille Ball was stunning in this classic musical theater story based on the play “Auntie Mame.”  Looking magnificent in gowns by Theadora Van Runkle, she is trim and articulate.  Known to everyone as the zany housewife in the black and white, classic “I Love Lucy” TV show, Lucille Ball doesn’t leave behind her comedic movement skill.  Whether posing on a theatrical moon set or finding foxes while riding horses in the outdoors, sight gags while interpreting this sophisticated, worldly woman are somehow more splendid.  

With book by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, there are great zingers in the dialogue, with punctuated one-liners, intentionally amplified by Director Gene Saks.  In the story, Auntie Mame is asked to become guardian to her deceased brother’s young son, with ties to the Knickerbocker family.  He is quickly taken out of an experimental New York school, and sent to prep school in New Haven.  Appearing not the least exhausted from coping with the height of the era, along with daily tasks assigned by judgmental relatives, Mame stands strong in New York City, before lending a sympathetic ear to her house staff.  Bea Arthur as Vera Charles, so tall and with such a deep voice, plays a great confidant to Lucille Ball’s Mame.  Together, these tough ladies know how to firmly shake upper-level New York Society, bringing a wisdom only they know.  I had to appreciate Mame’s jolt to a certain snobbery, persisting in manners practiced awkwardly without thought, year after year.  

Through the 30s, tough times were meant to be tolerated, and while welcoming those who weren’t New Yorkers to her home, she found unique pathways to getting through the years.  Mame eventually marries well, living with Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside, played by the appealing Robert Preston.  When Beauregard tragically dies in a skiing accident, Mame is forced to reside in New York.  An easy road back to society life it isn’t.  Stakes are high when Mame encounters the Connecticut family of nephew Patrick’s fiance.  Shunned at first, she glides through upsetting moments to find true clarity, eventually orchestrating world travel with the son of her nephew.

What a sense of the enduring power of musical theater!  With music and lyrics by Jerry Herman, memorable songs include the comedic, “The Man on the Moon is a Lady, “We Need a Little Christmas,” and the title song, “Mame.”  Asking us to appreciate the sights and sounds of New York, through it all, there are moments of design that are impossible to forget.  With a surrounding cast in numbers that impress, Mame appears with high collars and luxurious furs, making her look absolutely on top of the world.  Costume Design by Theadora Van Runkle is particularly whimsical in the Roaring 20s moments.  Agnes Gooch (Jane Connell), the maid, redefines geek chic.  In the title song, an astonishing number of dancers appear in white and red, near a large outdoor estate.  Leaping before appearing in a kick line, the dancers find astonishing grace, in a choreographed fantasy of moves that prove to be dazzling beyond compare.

I’d see this one again, just to appreciate how musical theater, sometimes ahead of its time, can be so astoundingly accurate.  The story makes a Dramaturg or a Designer cry, while leaving a Director to stand back in awe and appreciate musical genius on the silver screen. 

Runs 2 hrs. 11 min.