by Michael Bowen & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & f you're doing a show about fighting the hidebound habits of conformity, you'd better have a unicorn in your show -- a character who's other-worldly, a little forbidding, nonconformist, unique. And the Civic's current production of Mame (through Dec. 17) has its unicorn, all right -- it's just that the horn's on the wrong woman. Despite several delightfully varied dance sequences, some amazing costumes, a couple of stellar vocal numbers and a storyline that's all about living life to the fullest, most of the joie de vivre in the Civic's Mame lies with the sidekick and not the star.
In the bosom-buddy role of Vera Charles, Kathie Doyle-Lipe shows more exuberance, unconventionality and comic gusto than does Melody Deatherage in the title role. The result is an imbalanced show.
Deatherage never does or says anything in the role that gives us reason to smack our foreheads in disbelief over that unpredictable, sensational Mame. But Doyle-Lipe does: popping through doorways and out of the bedclothes, jamming one-liner retorts right into the maw of her conversational opponents, nearly falling headlong down stairwells, she may be stealing scenes, but she's alive up there. Doyle-Lipe is a prairie dog, popping her head up and skittering across the stage; in contrast, Deatherage is an Irish wolfhound, elegant but lumbering. Granted, Doyle-Lipe's Vera is just a martini-swilling eccentric, whereas Deatherage's Mame has to leaven her comedy with seriousness. She has to be responsible; she's the one, after all, who has a kid.
Which may explain why Deatherage is so transcendently good in Mame's big 11 o'clock song of regret: "Would I make the same mistakes / If he walked into my life today?" she asks, right after her adopted nephew Patrick, now all grown up, has gotten engaged to a conventional girl and her conventional lifestyle. For the boy she had taken into her life so long ago, it's what Mame feared most.
Deatherage's voice can sometimes strain in the lower register, and she isn't particularly light on her feet. But director Troy Nickerson wisely plays "If He Walked Into My Life" simply, with Deatherage in an elegant gown, standing her ground, isolated in a spotlight with all her self-doubt and sadness pouring out. She was so busy being unconventional, she forgot to make the best parenting decisions. Deatherage stands and delivers on the song -- with her voice a little raspy and a lot anguished -- and it's a moment, rare in the look-at-me-being-silly atmosphere of Mame, when a character's emotions (rather than the external situation) propel the lyrics. Deatherage delivers the mood of "If He Walked" magnificently.
But it's only one song. While Doyle-Lipe does the physical comedy and the quick outbursts, Deatherage stands out most in expressing her character's quasi-maternal love and occasional sadness. And we're still stuck with an imbalance.
The subject matter of Mame, moreover, has dated. Hard-drinkin', brassy women aren't the cultural curiosity today that they were in 1938, with the result that Mame's supposed outrageousness doesn't seem quite so outrageous at all. Even in the hilarious "Moon Song" sequence, when Vera tries to help out Mame by giving her a small role in a stage show, Doyle-Lipe is so good at slapstick that she simply comes off as more lively and more outrageous than Deatherage, and more of the scene's focal point.
Yet again, during "We Need a Little Christmas" -- a more traditional and serious setting in which Mame needs to cheer everyone up just when they've run out of money -- Deatherage conveys touching generosity when she surprises her employees and her nephew with presents. She projects the conventional, more serious side of Mame; too bad that's only half the job.