Laurel Mill Playhouse reaches boldly with 'Auntie Mame'

In the spirit of an irrepressible title character, the Laurel Mill Playhouse unveiled its Nov. 2 opening of "Auntie Mame" without a backward glance at Hurricane Sandy.

A madcap comedy based on the fictional novel by Patrick Dennis, and adapted to film and stage by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, the original Broadway play and film both starred Rosalind Russell in the 1950s. Retold as a musical and film remake in the '60s and '70s, Mame Dennis' adventures have fascinated audiences all over the world for more than half a century, drawing other great talents like Angela Lansbury, Lucille Ball and Carol Channing to the title role.

Directed by Playhouse vice president Larry Simmons, who is also a cast member, the play begins in 1920s Manhattan. Mame Dennis, played by Anne Hull, of Laurel, is a socialite flapper who suddenly finds herself the guardian of her orphaned 10-year-old nephew, Patrick, played by Laurel resident Michael Glen. When Patrick appears during a roaring party at Mame's penthouse apartment, it is love at first sight — a bond that will travel full circle and last a lifetime.

Patrick moves in and Mame tackles his mentorship with a vengeance. But Mr. Babcock, the executor of Patrick's deceased father's estate, fervently disapproves of free spirits. When Babcock, played by Douglas Silverman, finds Patrick running naked at an alternative school headed by one of Mame's bohemian friends (played by Mark T. Allen), he sends the boy off to board at his own alma mater.

Soon after Mame loses her wealth in the Great Depression, and she comically pursues a series of jobs until finding a fairy tale ending to her woes — falling in love with, and marrying, oil millionaire Beauregard Burnside, portrayed with engaging charm by Allen.

Patrick grows to manhood under Babcock's stewardship as the couple travels the world on an endless honeymoon, until Beau tragically falls from a mountain. Returning to Manhattan just in time to steer Patrick from catastrophe, the grieving Mame reconnects with her lifelong motto.

"Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death! Live!"

Timeless and controversial, "Auntie Mame" is a lovely saga about love and survival. Simmons skirts its inherent political statements lightly during election season, focusing wisely on the humor and artistry the script offers to a large cast.

Veteran actress and Playhouse public liaison Maureen Rogers delivers a stellar performance as Mame's actress sidekick — the notorious lush, Vera. Silverman savors his role, portraying the curmudgeonly Babcock with consummate skill. And Laurel resident Carleigh Jones' rock-solid stage presence as Patrick's nanny Norah Muldoon anchors the show from the moment she delivers Patrick to 3 Beekman Place.

Adept performances by both Patricks — the youngster played by Michael Glen and the young man played by Martin Colbert — gel well with their strong physical resemblance, a smart bit of casting by Simmons.

Sophie Rosenthal as Sally Cato delivers the beautiful and poisonous Southern debutante that we love to hate quite nicely, while Kendra Maura makes a delightfully timid Agnes Gooch.

Superbly costumed cast members also include Laurel residents Sophia Anastasi and Julie Rogers; and Becky Batt, Donna Bertrand, Jason Ferrell, Katrina Janson, David McCrary, David Scharton, Andre Sekowski and Sophia Nasreen Riazi-Sekowski — the youngest thespian who lights every moment she takes the stage. All deliver admirable performances.

Notably, Anne Hull's graceful characterization of Mame Dennis carried the opening night performance splendidly in spite of some inevitable bumps.

There's no doubt the Playhouse lost critical tech rehearsal time to Sandy, but "Mame's" epic nature and prolific scene changes present serious technical challenges to a community theater stage regardless.

While interesting and novel, the design concept here is vulnerable to mishap — mixing conventional and surrealistic multimedia settings with scene changes that take long minutes rather than seconds to execute. Sluggish scene changes damaged the production's continuity opening night and caused the show to run close to 3-1/2 hours.

Still, it was gratifying to see a community theater reach so boldly. And, like Mame Dennis, Laurel Mill Playhouse generously "opens doors" for community casts, crews and audiences. Folks willing to reciprocate by suspending a little more of their disbelief than usual should relish the outstanding performances and creative bravery of "Auntie Mame."

"Auntie Mame" continues through Nov. 18, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with a Sunday matinee at 2 p.m. on Nov. 18, at Laurel Mill Playhouse, 508 Main St. General admission is $15. Students, 18 and under; and seniors, 65 and over; pay $12. For reservations, call 301-617-9906 and press 2.

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