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Theater: Loretta Swit carries the show in NCT's "Mame"
Sunday, 2003 November 2 - 1:17 am
The North Carolina Theater presented its production of the musical "Mame" last week, featuring Loretta "Hot Lips Houlihan" Swit in the title role.

With all the newspaper ads trumpeting Loretta Swit's role in the North Carolina Theater production of "Mame", one might have had the impression that she was the only reason to see the show.

That was almost right.

Not that the show was all bad. But Loretta Swit was clearly carrying the production, and the rest of the cast seemed a little star-struck by comparison. No one could match Swit's stage presence or charisma, save perhaps Sheila Smith as the Vera, Mame's curmudgeon friend (with nearly all the best lines in the script). While some of the other actors' efforts were admirable, especially young Justin Schwartz playing Patrick as a child, most of the other speaking characters seemed stilted and stiff.

Swit did almost manage to rescue this show, with an energetic performance and a surprising abundance of singing talent. However, the script was weak, and some poor production and direction decisions did nothing to help. Note to the producers: having a non-Asian actor portraying an Asian stereotype, using a ridiculously cartoonish accent, is about as appropriate and culturally sensitive as Ted Danson wearing blackface at a Friar's Club roast. Note to the directors: if you're going to portray Southerners to a North Carolina audience, try to tone down the backwater-plantation stereotype of people clinging to an antebellum South. In general, the entire cast seemed to be a collection of shallow stereotypes, from the flaming homosexual hairstylist to the prudish Catholic nanny.

The show's other failings included: obscure referential humor that went over like a lead balloon; agonizingly slow, silent pacing through certain scenes; and a cliché-ridden set of musical numbers that seem directly stolen from "A Chorus Line" and "Annie". And while others might not notice this, I personally miss David Neville's deft touch at lighting design; some of Craig Stelzenmuller's design choices were puzzling, sometimes directing attention away from critical characters and set-pieces.

Where the show did succeed was in its staging of the big production numbers, with entertaining and period-appropriate (if somewhat simple) choreography, and excellent work from the costume department.

But even if everything else had been excellent, it would have been difficult to make a great show out of "Mame". I wonder, sometimes, about the future of the North Carolina Theater. With the other theater series (Best of Broadway, Broadway Series South) producing most of the major Broadway hits, the NCT is sometimes left with tired standbys like "Annie" and "My Fair Lady". My suggestion to the NCT is, if it can't land the blockbuster shows, then it should differentiate itself with more modern, avant-garde productions, perhaps even using local writers and composers, and make a mark as a breeding ground for great new theater. As it is now, the NCT seems to be turning into a glorified community theater, and its dwindling and aging audiences are reflecting that trend.

Rating: 2 / 5
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Posted by Ken in: reviewstheater

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