In the great tradition of the fabulous, one-night-only benefit shows that have happily proliferated over the years, a star-studded performance of Auntie Mame at the John Jay College Theater last night had a packed audience rocking with laughter and bursting with cheers and applause as it enriched the coffers of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.
This unforgettable staged reading of the play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, based on the novel by Patrick Dennis, was centered on the Auntie Mame of the one-and-only Charles Busch. Though Busch has gained mainstream attention as the author of the runaway hit Broadway comedy The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, his abilities as a drag performer are undiminished. (Don't miss his fifth annual turn in Times Square Angel, December 15 at Theater for the New City.) His performance as Mame Dennis was as effervescent as freshly uncorked champagne, full of style, wit, and warmth. There are rumors that Busch is considering an Off-Broadway run in the show, and it's devoutly to be wished that those rumors aren't idle.
Last night's event was not the first time that Busch took on the coveted role of Mame; he headlined a similarly star-studded reading of the Lawrence & Lee play in 1998. Featured in that company was Peggy Cass, the original Agnes Gooch, recreating the role she played so definitively on Broadway in 1956 and in the subsequent film version. (This was one of Cass's final public appearances; she died in March of 1999.) Busch's previous Auntie Mame was amazing, and last night's show gave the lie to the theory that lightning can't strike twice.
Miraculously, every single one of the play's numerous roles was wonderfully well cast -- this despite some late substitutions. (Rosie O'Donnell, Robert Sean Leonard, and Olympia Dukakis were among the announced performers who did not show.) Here, in alphabetical order, is a list of the standouts: Cris Alexander was the original cast member happily on hand for this occasion, recreating his original role of the snooty Macy's floorwalker Mr. Loomis; Lucie Arnaz didn't miss a single laugh as Sally Cato and looked so great that everyone was talking about her during intermission; Anthony Edwards (of TV's ER) was thoroughly charming as Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside; Beth Howland and Charles Kimbrough were perfection as the bigoted Upsons, while Dylan Baker was appropriately pompous as their partner-in-crime, Mr. Babcock; Rue McClanahan was uproariously gaseous as Mother Burnside, Charles Shaughnessy deliciously smug as the pretentious freeloader Brian O'Bannion, Douglas Sills handsome and ingratiating as M. Lindsay Woolsey. And Sarah Uriarte Berry, whom one might have thought was miscast as the lock-jawed, bubbleheaded Gloria Upson, turned out to be terrific in the part.
Special nods to T.J. Larke and Christopher Sieber for their winning performances as the younger and older Patrick Dennis, respectively. B.D. Wong hilariously sent up Asian stereotypes in the role of Ito, while frequent Charles Busch collaborator Alison Fraser was a delightful Nora Muldoon. (She replaced Rosie O'Donnell; go figure!) Though it can't have been easy to play Gooch in the shadow of Peggy Cass, Swoosie Kurtz was adorably funny in the role, playing it as if with a chronic head cold. Thanks also to Valerie Harper for hosting the evening and reading selected stage directions. But if the show belonged to any one person besides Busch, it was Marian Seldes. I've been saying for years that Seldes would be a phenomenal Vera Charles, and she proved me right with her flawless timing, priceless facial expressions, and spot-on line readings. Brava, diva!
Directed by Richard Sabellico, the performance benefited greatly from William Barnes's stage management, Michael Bottari & Ronald Case's costume coordination, and John McDaniel's piano accompaniment. (God, I love that theme from the movie!) As is almost always the case with charity one-nighters, this one seemed a bit under-rehearsed. But the minor mishaps that resulted only tended to add to the show's charm and hilarity, as when Edwards forgot to wheel McClanahan's chair into the wings following the first Peckerwood scene. Returning quickly to the stage after his solo exit, Edward grabbed the chair and scooted it off while ad-libbing in a perfect Southern accent, "It's not lahk me to forget mah own muthah!" Of course, the audience howled.
For all of its late entrances, flubbed lines, and missed lighting cues, this was an Auntie Mame to be cherished.