I don't think "Mame" is exactly what Broadway has been hungering for. But it can sure use Angela Lansbury, back in the role of the swinging aunt she created a bit over 17 years ago, and looking handsomer and sprightlier than ever. To paraphrase one of Jerry Herman's tuneful songs, she brings a little Christmas to the Gershwin, where the revival opened last evening.
She positively gleams in an assortment of spiffy costumes that she must delight in after the rags she sported in "Sweeney Todd" (I'm overlooking a flop play she had the misfortune to be caught up in between musicals). She and Herman's melodies, from the inescapable title song to the enchanting, next-to-closing, "If He Walked into My Life," repeatedly come to the rescue of the rather unwieldy book that the team of Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee extracted from their play "Auntie Mame" based on the Patrick Dennis book of that name. Whether singing, dancing or acting, the star shines throughout.
What little support she has from the rest of the cast, whose principals number several members of the original company, is provided mainly by Anne Francine as that bibulous stage star Vera Charles and "bosom buddy" of Mame's (good snappy duet here in spite of its harking back to Cole Porter's "Friendship"). Jane Connell once again does her Agnes Gooch (Mame's first cloistered, then impregnated, secretary) to a broad comic turn, and the singing and dancing ensemble is well drilled. Among others repeating their earlier parts are Willard Waterman as the family lawyer, and Sab Shimono as Mame's houseman.
Among the things the star must overcome are that interminable first-act production number to the thin song "Open a New Window," and the less-than-amusing show-within-a-show debacle, "The Man in the Moon (Is a Lady)," that follows soon after. Also, I must register a deep disaffection for the sentimental "My Best Girl," which keeps turning up between Mame and her nephew Patrick Dennis (either aged 10 or 28, as he is at the finish) like a dollop of treacle.
But there are bright songs, too, besides those already mentioned - the zippy "It's Today" that starts the evening swinging, and the Charleston "That's How Young I Feel," in which the star and chorus kick up their heels just before her fine solo, "If He Walked into My Life."
The new Beauregard (Scot Stewart), whose wooing of Mame brings us to the title song, would be negligible even in a stock production, which, in a way, I suppose this is. And I cared little for the grownup Patrick (Byron Nease) aside from his pleasant singing voice. The young Patrick (Roshi Handwerger) I found one of the more objectionable stage children within recent memory.
The sets, recreated from the original designs, along with Robert Mackintosh's costumes and Thomas Skelton's lighting, are all adequate, the costumes even more than adequate.
John Bowab has staged the revival efficiently, and Onna White's original dance numbers have been recreated effectively.
"Mame" didn't precisely bowl me over 17 years ago, but Lansbury is stronger, more assured, and more winning than ever. She deserves a new show. But, meanwhile, she convinces you that this one is much better than it actually is.
To the strumming of banjos and memories, and assisted by the still-undimmed effulgence of Miss Angela Lansbury, Mame is back in town. She booked in last night at the Gershwin Theater.
Last time around this tuneful tuner, with lyrics and music by Jerry Herman and book by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, based on their earlier play Auntie Mame, stuck around for more than 1500 performances. This time? Who can tell?
The present revival - which sent Saturday night's preview audience almost dotty with joy - is a seemingly punctilious restaging of the 1966 original. Not unexpectedly some spontaneity has been lost, to be replaced by a certain degree of reverence.
The habit of almost literally reproducing old hit musicals with their original stars requires a skill that combines those of the picture restorer with that of the embalmer. And the result is an essay partly in nostalgia - how quickly those years fly! - and partly in the present commemoration, for a largely new audience, of a memorable moment past.
Mame is a classic show-biz musical - in no way innovative, but with a whimsically charming if occasionally untidy book - about the eccentricities of everyone's favorite aunt, originally celebrated in a short novel by her nephew Patrick Dennis.
It also has Herman's music and lyrics - both breezy and lyrical, led by the mind-tapping, memory-snapping title-song, perhaps the most insiduous razzmatazz charmer since Herman's other title song for Hello Dolly!.
The pristine original - at the Winter Garden Theater - also had the deftness of Gene Saks's quickfire staging, some cheerfully period-accented dances by Onna White (the action ranges from 1928 to 1946), and the sheer radiance of Miss Lansbury, set to win the first of her four Tony Awards.
Now only Miss Lansbury remains intact - sensationally intact. Time seems simply to have patted her on her head and told her to go about her business; she still has her oversize gentility, her owlishly matronly good looks and unstaunchable vivacity. The lady is a riot, and an object lesson to everyone over 35 or a little something up.
Regarding the staging I do have some reservations. Herman himself is credited as being the Production Supervisor, and obviously knew what he wanted - something closely approximating the original. But this is perhaps a strange ambition for a creative artist.
This new Mame looks a trifle old. John Bowab's direction is heading the right way but does not have the original show's Saks-appeal, and Diana Baffa-Baill's realization of Miss White's choreography (Miss Baffa-Baill was a member of the original chorus) seems unsubtly Off-White.
The new scenery by Peter Wolf - yes, based, we are told, on the original designs by William and Jean Eckhart - is okay but lacks the first element of suprise (the original was one of the first automated sets); on the other hand, if memory serves, the costumes by Robert Mackintosh are even fancier and more extravagant than he himself contrived in 1966.
That surely is the secret. If lightning is to strike twice in the same place, and anyone is to notice it, it must blast harder the second time.
The new cast is a good one. Some of them are actual survivors from the musical's first bow. We have Jane Connell as Gooch, that nanny's nanny who goes on the loose; Sab Shimono as the pre-Pearl Harbor, pre-Sony Japanese houseboy; Willard Waterman as the bumbly, bullying lawyer Babcock; and John C. Becher as the crassest suburbanite ever to come out of the suburbs, one who still puts honey in his Daiquiris.
A near original cast member - but in herself a total original - is Anne Francine as Mame's viperish bosom buddy Vera Charles.
Miss Francine - one of Beatrice Arthur's first successors in the role - is absolutely marvelous and grandiose. Her back-stabbing duet with Miss Lansbury, which inevitably stops the show dead in its well-worn tracks, is one of the best things currently on Broadway. A gem - encrusted by both ladies.
Let me offer a nice word for the unaffected kid Roshi Handwerger who plays the young Patrick Dennis, and Byron Nease, the elder Patrick.
So Hello Mame, Hello Mame, it's quite nice to have you back where you belong. But perhaps you should have changed more than your dress. Still, if Yul Brynner can get away with it, why not Miss Lansbury?
Though they have their other failings, the people who have brought ''Mame'' back to Broadway are master archeologists. The new production at the Gershwin Theater looks like an almost exact replica of the musical that opened at the Winter Garden in 1966.
Angela Lansbury is back as Patrick Dennis's high-living, freethinking aunt - still kicking a leg clear to heaven in the irresistible title song, still pouring her soul into the ballad ''If He Walked Into My Life,'' still exhorting one and all to ''Live, live, live!'' Jane Connell has also returned as the comic nanny Agnes Gooch, and so have Sab Shimono as the Japanese butler, Willard Waterman as the villainous stuffed-shirt lawyer and John C. Becher as the biggest boor ever to serve daiquiris in suburban Connecticut. When Miss Lansbury locks arms with Mr. Shimono and Miss Connell to strut to ''We Need a Little Christmas,'' you could swear that time has stood still.
The finer points of ''Mame'' are replicated as well. As conducted by Jim Coleman and sung by the entire company, Jerry Herman's melodies and Philip J. Lang's orchestrations are still infectious: you feel their pull as soon as the banjos start strumming in the overture. Robert Mackintosh's costumes remain opulent and delightful, whether they're romanticizing Art Deco New York, the unreconstructed Deep South or the bobby-soxers of the 1940's. And perhaps best of all, a veteran of the first ''Mame,'' Diana Baffa-Brill, has done a letter-perfect job of reconstructing Onna White's original choreography. If you hadn't realized you've been missing the sunny, corny verve of Miss White's cakewalks and marches, you will now.
Thanks to this kind of care - the care that was missing in the recent revival of the other (and superior) Dennis-inspired musical of the 60's, ''Little Me'' - ''Mame'' will please diligent students of the musical theater (tired-businessman's division). No doubt it will charm some newcomers, too - assuming that there's anyone alive who hasn't previously met its heroine. But for everyone else, the pleasure has its limits. Though the pieces of ''Mame'' have been retrieved from the past, one doesn't find the present-tense heat that might again weld them into a fresh, effortless entertainment.
This is a consequence of the production's few but crucial lapses. In all of its incarnations - starting with the novel, the nonmusical play and the movie that preceded this version - Mr. Dennis's fable is an unabashed Oedipal love story between the nonconformist title character and the orphan nephew whom she adopts just as Manhattan's Jazz Age is going bust. That sentimental romance never gets going this time, because the performers playing the young and young-adult Patrick are insipid. The other big relationship in the show - between Mame and the dipsomaniacal actress Vera Charles - is no warmer: Vera always was too campy to be true, and, in Anne Francine's basso profundo rendition, the campiness has curdled so completely that you may think the role was written for Cyril Ritchard.
The direction also falls short. John Bowab has generally duplicated Gene Saks's original staging: even Miss Connell's once-timely parody of Carol Channing's staircase entrance in Mr. Herman's previous hit, ''Hello, Dolly!,'' has been preserved. But the results, unsurprisingly, look forced and mechanical rather than spontaneous.
The Gershwin (formerly the Uris) is so huge that the jokes and mobile scenery (Peter Wolf's tarted-up versions of the William and Jean Eckart originals) must strain to fill it. The returning cast members, while no less skilled than ever, work overtime to create two difficult illusions - that they haven't aged and that they haven't played this show a thousand times before. They often succeed, but not without showing us the sweat that one doesn't want to see in an easygoing enterprise like ''Mame.''
The more energy that's expended, the more we notice the seams: ''Mame'' is long and repetitively constructed. With maybe two exceptions, Mr. Herman's songs annotate Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee's book rather than propel it forward: The Peter Panlike story of Mame's 20-year tutelage of Patrick, already densely plotted, is in effect told twice. The bitchy aphorisms of the dialogue seem unsophisticated now, and so do some of the numbers. The extended tour through Prohibition nightlife (''Open a New Window'') and the operetta parody (''The Man in the Moon'') look particularly threadbare.
But there are other moments that perk us up, many of them featuring Miss Lansbury. One feels a rush when she enters, a vision in gold from her toes to her raised bugle, to play queen bee to her Beekman Place party guests. It's still fun to watch her exchange insults with Miss Francine in ''Bosom Buddies'' or teach teen-agers how to jitterbug in ''That's How Young I Feel.'' Like everyone else, the star sometimes seems to be pushing herself to be merry - but, as always, she is a charismatic actress and a paragon of glamour.
Indeed, glamour is the show's other principal calling card. Perhaps the main reason why Patrick Dennis's fairy tale has survived so long is that it celebrates a glittering, ritzy, fantasy New York - a place where no one worried about money, only fools bothered to work, and everyone could spend a lifetime getting sloshed on martinis at the Algonquin. The glow of that escapist world can still be found in ''Mame,'' even if, now more than ever, we're aware that it's provided by artificial light.