“Mame” is almost 30 years old and, like its title song says, may “never go away again.”
Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s musical version of their hit play “Aun tie Mame,” adapted from Patrick Dennis’ novel, and with a score by Jerry Herman, opens tomorrow night at the Alex Theatre, and according to its star and director, is as spry as ever.
Both Juliet Prowse, who plays the indomitable lady, and director John Bowab know Mame Dennis intimately. Bowab was associate producer of the original Broadway show, which starred Angela Lansbury. He’s directed what he says is a “possible 20 ladies” in the title role, including Lansbury in 1972 and 1975 revivals and in a limited Broadway run in 1983. He guided the first stock production with Ann Miller, first directed Prowse in the role 20 years ago in Texas and on tour at Lake Tahoe and Vegas.
“I keep saying,” Bowab admits, “that I’m never going to do it again, never. But it’s such a fun show to do, and it’s very hard to say no to Juliet. And ‘Mame’ holds such great memories for me. From the beginning it was a happy experience. It has meant a great deal to me.”
Bowab, who spends most of his time these days directing television sitcoms from “Soap” and “Bosom Buddies” to more than 200 episodes of “The Facts of Life,” is staging this production in the middle of his busy pilot season schedule. But he says it’s a breeze.
He explains: “I came in thinking, ‘Here we go again.’ A lot of times you’ll be directing and you think, ‘Will this day never end?’ But with ‘Mame’ I find myself rehearsing until 9 o’clock, and the show doesn’t get me tired.”
Juliet Prowse feels the same way about Herman’s classic musical comedy. She first appeared in the show in London when she replaced Ginger Rogers, 20 years ago. It was the beginning of a long and loving relationship. Born in Bombay and raised in South Africa, Prowse had her training as a ballet dancer, which led her to London at 17, to ballet and eventually to musical films and theater. Her international career has encompassed film and television as well as heading the casts of such perennial favorites as “Irma La Douce,” “Damn Yankees” and “Chicago.”
But somehow she, like Bowab, keeps coming back to “Mame.”
When Prowse initially did the show, in her early 30s, she felt she was too young for the role. Since then she has raised a son to the age of the adult Patrick in the show, and says the 20 years that have passed have made her better in the role of Mame.
“Age has a lot to do with it,” Prowse says. “I’ve had a lot more experience. I’ve grown with it. And I’ve had a son. I’ve had the personal experience of bringing up a child, going through the whole thing. Now when I sing ‘If He Walked Into My Life’ in the show, I really have something direct to relate to. And Patrick’s coming from the young child to the grown-up man, I’ve gone through that process with my own child. That’s a great learning experience.”
The parallels between the eccentric Mame and the show business mother are undeniable. Prowse compares Mame’s several-year honeymoon in the play with her own parental problems while touring. “It’s the same thing,” she says. “You’re always on the road, having to leave your children places, different schools, with people to take care of them while you’re gone. And it’s the guilt you get, which has a lot to do with when Mame says if he walked into my life, did I do this enough, did I do too much of that. It’s all of that, the fact that you weren’t there those times you should have been.”
Prowse says experience has also taught her how to present Mame honestly. “She does live this life, but she is also a very real person. When the child comes into her life, it does make a difference. She suddenly realizes this is something special. This is something that’s been missing in her life. Responsibility is what it is. Yes, she’s a very up person, but she’s a very warm, loving being. I don’t see her as bizarre at all.”
Even having played the role as often as she has, Prowse says that keeping her performance fresh is no problem.
“The wonderful thing about this role,” she explains, “is that you’re in everything so you don’t have time to think about anything else except getting out there and making it like the first time ever. As an actor, you have to do that for yourself for self-protection. It’s a great way to hone your craft, being able to do it every night and find new things. Suddenly you’ll find something new that just happens in the performance. Those are little things you can hold onto so your performance is going to get bigger and rounder.”
Bowab agrees, even after having seen the show, he says with a laugh, “maybe 5,000 times. New people bring you new things. A lot of times you get a new actor--this time Gretchen Wyler is playing the actress, Vera Charles--and you get a different feeling. Certainly you can’t say Angela Lansbury and Ann Miller in the same sentence, but each one of them brought a different quality to it. Ann brought a party-girl atmosphere to the role. Juliet brings a kind of sexual energy to Mame that some of the others didn’t.
“To the audience,” Bowab says, “whether they’re young or old, Mame has become folklore. Before she even hits the top of the stairs, they’re already prepared for someone eccentric, attractive, off-center. The actress just has to be an extension of herself. That’s what the joy is here.”
WHERE AND WHEN
Location: Alex Theatre, 216 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale.
Hours: Previews at 8 tonight and 2 p.m. Saturday. Opens at 8 p.m. Saturday, with regular performances continuing at 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Ends April 24.
Price: $10-$42. (Previews $10-$31.)
Call: (800) 233-3123.