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Life of the Party

Barksdale's "Mame" captures the spirit of one of theater's favorite eccentrics.

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Fans of the zany antics of Auntie Mame Dennis and her orphaned nephew, Patrick, know the stakes are high to capture the endearing and eccentric sentiment of this popular heroine.

"Mame" is the story of Patrick Dennis, who moves to New York City with his nanny in the midst of the roaring '20s to live with his Auntie Mame, a socialite with an unconventional view on life. The musical chronicles their relationship from his adolescence to adulthood, and catalogs her interesting child-rearing techniques — among them, sending Patrick to a nudist grade school, teaching him how to make martinis and sabotaging his love life.

It's Mame's lust for life that drives the plot, with humor and verve, as she survives the Depression by taking odd jobs (from actress to beautician), ultimately finding a savior in a wealthy Southern gentleman. In a nutshell, "Mame" is a carnival of live music, dance numbers and witty dialogue in the spirit of "The Bird Cage" or "The Women."

Barksdale Theatre's production of "Mame" will not disappoint because it keeps Mame's message alive: that fitting in is never as important as being interesting. The production — and it is certainly that with an ensemble cast of more than 20 — overcomes the constraints of the smaller stage and is both energetic and entertaining.

Kathy Halenda as "Mame" nails the lead with powerful vocal skills and stage presence. It's no easy task to harness the energy of such a vivacious character, but Halenda has done it in spades. Robin Arthur is another comic standout as catty sidekick Vera Charles. And Amy Prothro, with her impressive comic timing and vocal range, is excellent as the mousy nanny Agnes Gooch.

One drawback is the multiple set changes and dance ensemble numbers, which make the production a bit too Titanic for this stage. The headset microphones used by some cast members provide another minor distraction. They looked odd in such an intimate theater setting. Ultimately, director and choreographer K Strong deftly restrains the scale of the material and music, as in the parade of New York characters she uses in "Open a New Window" to illustrate the variety of people Patrick can learn from and in the awkward and hilarious scenes with Mame's new Southern in-laws at a Georgia fox hunt.

Kudos to set designer Mercedes Schaum, who manages to subtly update the styling of Mame's apartment as it moves from the decadent '20s to the bare walls of the Depression era to the modern art of the '40s. Even "The Moon Song" scene, featuring Mame being wheeled out on a crescent moon after her disastrous attempt to act, and the preppy Connecticut barn party thrown by the uptight parents of Patrick's airhead girlfriend manage to work with only a tiny bit of imagination needed.

With memorable numbers such as "We Need a Little Christmas" to "Gooch's Song," the strength of the production is in the cast and direction — nothing puts a damper on this production or Mame's spirit. S

"Mame" is running at the Barksdale Theatre at Willow Lawn through Jan. 28. Tickets are $40 and can be purchased at 282-2620 or www.barksdalerichmond.org.

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