Costume designer Gregg Barnes, who has outfitted Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Drowsy Chaperones and entire Side Shows, believes he may have met his match in Mame, the musical Auntie and everybody’s favorite eccentric, which is rating a 40th-anniversary revival at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater.
“It’s daunting, all right, but it’s a dream job,” he says, all too aware of the legacy of glamour that clings like satin to the show. Mame Dennis, a woman of many vogues and vagaries, extravagant gestures and staircase entrances—made her first entrance in 1954 in a novel by Patrick Dennis. Two years later, Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee adapted it into a stage vehicle for Rosalind Russell and, two years after that, into a film. Adding Jerry Herman’s score to the mix, they took it from the top again for Angela Lansbury to do on stage in 1966. The film version of the musical in 1974 featured Lucille Ball.
Christine Baranski makes a perfect fit for those treacherously high heels in the Kennedy Center’s new edition, which begins performances May 27. Baranski is a performer of considerable style and wit—with two Tonys and an Emmy to prove it—and, in Barnes’s view, is a lively collaborator.
“Inevitably, when you get a job,” he admits, “you call everybody you know who has worked with this person and say, ‘What’s she like?’ Well, the word on Christine is extraordinary. It isn’t just that nobody says anything negative. It’s the most glowing things about her work ethic and how intelligent she is and how much fun she is. We’ve already had some meetings and a photo shoot, and I can attest to the truth of it.” The musical spans—or, more precisely, sprints—from October 1928 to June 1946, and covers the roller-coaster ride of a loony Old Money libertine who takes in her orphaned nephew, Patrick, and steers him to responsible manhood. It plays like a perpetual party, and Mame is always the life of it, a vibrant force of nature throughout. “Live!” she famously proclaims to her nebbish secretary, Agnes Gooch. “Life’s a banquet, and most poor sons-of-bitches are starving to death!”
“What’s so great about this project is that it has real range,” Barnes is quick to point out. “You have, obviously, conspicuous wealth. You have interesting street life. You have that ‘Man in the Moon’ theatrical spectacular. You have those WASPs from Connecticut. Because it travels through a few decades and hits so many socioeconomic levels, it’s fun.
“And, of course, there’s Mame herself. I may be wrong on this, but I have a feeling she has more costume changes than any character in Broadway musicals. She has 16. Usually, if you have 12 costume changes on your leading lady, you’re in Camelot. It’s interesting for the actor playing Mame. Not only is it physically and vocally demanding, you’ve got this backstage dynamic where you’re flinging yourself in and out of costumes all the time.
“We have yet to really crack the nut on this, but what we’re working on is to dress her in a way that defines her. Is she a lady who shops at Bergdorf’s and makes everything her own by her wit—or is she somebody who pushes it a little more over the top and dresses for the occasion? We haven’t really settled exactly on how far we’re going to push that.
“The thing that is interesting about the play is the different situations that she’s in. Very often, she’s not in her usual Mame high-life guise. There’s a scene where she’s dressing up for her Patrick’s trustee to seem conservative and another where she dresses down so she won’t embarrass Patrick by her flamboyance in front of his prospective in-laws.
“Another thing we’re talking about with Christine’s character is that we want the world to revolve around her. It’s like everybody has sort of realized their destiny, but then, when she comes in, they see, ‘Oh, there’s a new point of view.’ And then, by the time we finally see everybody, they have assumed the guise of what she has thought of. She comes into the story and reinvents it again. We see her shaping the world around her with her style.”
The strong link between Mame and Patrick is something Barnes has especially been trying to underscore as a designer. “I want to visually support the emotional connection between those two. For the opening party scene, Lansbury wore yellow, Russell wore orange and black, and Lucy wore red—but we’re thinking of putting Mame in white so that in the middle of this chaotic, decadent party, with all these incredible celebrities, she is angelic-looking, a beacon in this world of his that has been turned upside down. When Patrick sees her, he just zeroes in on that persona. Then, we can build some texture to their relationship and understand why it is he falls in love with her instantly and she with him.
“Somebody told me that Irene Sharaff [the late Tony-winning costume designer from the 1950s and 60's] was supposed to design the original production of Mame and that her idea was that Mame would always be in white. Now, every time I get to a new scene, I think, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if she were in white?’ We won’t do that, but it’s interesting.”
Most designers find themselves asking “What would Irene do?” at one point or another. “We all start there,” Barnes confesses, and he found himself literally in that position when he had to follow her act for the revival of Flower Drum Song. “Talk about a legend to live up to—not that I’m presumptuous enough to say that I did, but she really set so many standards.” (For the record: both Sharaff and Barnes earned Tony nominations for that show.)
There will be 250 costumes in the Kennedy Center’s Mame, and Barnes hopes they will speak for themselves. “When you think about it, a skirt is a skirt. It’s only interesting in the story that it tells, so I always try to get beyond the fabric. It’s almost, I’m sure, like what an actor does. I’m asking, ‘What’s the motivation for the costume, and how can I help that to tell the story?’”