Among my pleasant memories of growing up in the 1950’s were reading the charming book, “Mama’s Bank Account,” and viewing the touching television series “I Remember Mama,” starring Peggy Wood, and based upon the book. Now, all these years later, I was able to delightfully revisit the wonderful characters in this turn-of-the-century story of a poor Norwegian family named Hansen, as they struggle to survive hard economic times in old San Francisco of 1910. My opportunity came in the form of Masquerade Theatre’s marvelous new production of “I Remember Mama,” skillfully directed by Phillip Duggins, and featuring the lovely music of Richard Rodgers’ final score, the bright and tender lyrics of Martin Charnin, as well as a witty and charming book by Thomas Meehan.
Opening on the warm and homey kitchen / parlor set (designed by the company’s talented technical director, David Higginbotham), we immediately sense an ordered family home full of love. At the center of that love is the radiant warmth of the intimate relationship between Mama (Stephanie Bradow) and Papa (Ilich Guardiola). The two are magical together, creating a thoroughly believable atmosphere of family togetherness through all the struggles that life can offer. That togetherness is richly complemented by the utter perfection of the young stars playing their children: Monica Passley as the enthusiastic budding author, Katrin, Kacy Smith as sweet Johanna, Stephanie Styles as struggling pianist, Christine, Nicholas Schneider as eager and gentle, Nils, and captivating scene-stealer, Caroline Leggett, who glows as the youngest daughter, Dagmar.
Have I mentioned that this is a musical comedy? The name Richard Rodgers needs no elaboration as to the quality of the wonderful, but little known music. And as to the comedy, what a wonderful cast we have for that! Why Mama herself can bring down the house with a roll of her eyes. But better still, we have the hilarious antics of the sneering, snooty family aunts, Jenny (Rebekah Dahl), and Sigrid (Kristina Sullivan). Couple them with the poor wailing maiden Aunt Trina (Laura Gray) and the uproarious and brilliantly boisterous comedy of Russell Freeman as Uncle Chris, and you have a prescription for a laugh riot in the theater. With Trina’s intended, the hilariously timid undertaker, Mr. Thorkelson, (Sam Brown) seeking Uncle Chris’ approval to wed Aunt Trina, the belly laughs seem, at times, to come non-stop. Heavy-set Freeman is a natural comic, and literally explodes on stage with such a fantastic sense of physical comedy and grace (what a dancer!) that he reminds one of the late Jackie Gleason.
And speaking of dancing, the deliciously joyful choreography of Mr. Duggins is superbly carried off by all in the cast (especially the children), while the charming period costumes of designers, Miss Bradow and Bridget Styles, add to the glow of the production. As for the divine music, the fine 9-member Chamber Orchestra (led by pianist Anita Butts) did a superb job from its perch high atop the proscenium. Katrin’s “I Remember Mama” solo is the sweet opening number. In songs like “A Writer Writes At Night,” she beams both vocally and visually, and literally owns the stage. There is a joyful duet of “A Little Bit More” from Mama and Papa. Bradow and Guardiola both sing beautifully, and his voice seems to get richer with each Masquerade production. Mama leads her anniversary party guests in the optimistic “Ev’ry Day,” as the full casts delights the audience with wonderful dancing and choral work, and a quaint ribbon dance adds a special touch that reminds us of a time when simple pleasures united families. It brought tears to my eyes to see the extraordinary intimacy of the parent’s love duet in “You Could Not Please Me More,” and the sweet waltz that follows. Moments later, tears of laughter fogged my glasses as the aunts throw barbs at Uncle Chris in “A Most Disagreeable Man.” But Uncle Chris was most agreeable leading the show-stopping “Easy Come, Easy Go,” with more fabulous dancing and great counterpoint singing from the cast. Then things turn a bit more serious as Papa sings “It’s Not the End of the World” after losing his carpentry job and deciding he must return to Norway to find work. Mama’s wrenching “When?” captures the heartbreak of their separation. Then, with chorus, Miss Dahl returns (in a second amusing role as author, Dame Sybil Fitzgibbon’s) to cheer us with the fun-filled “Fair Trade.” There is more fun in Uncle Chris’ amusing death scene as he sings “It’s Gonna Be Good to be Gone.” His dying words: “One of the pleasures of dying is you no longer have to worry about your G_ _ Damn Health!” Upon learning her deceased Uncle Chris had squandered his fortune, Aunt Jenny adds to the mirth announcing, “This is the worst death I’ve ever been to!”
But all ends happily, and as Mama sings the closing “Time,” we are forced to reflect on the speed with which life flies by. This evening of superb theatre seemed to fly by as well.
The Masquerade Theatre is located at 1537 N. Shepherd in the Heights. (Moments from the Durham/N. Shepherd exit of loop 610). Masquerade performances of “I Remember Mama” will be at 8 p.m. on December 10th and 11th with one special performance at the Hobby Center December 19th at 6p.m. Tickets are $26 for adults and $21 for seniors/students. For information or reservations call 713-861-7045 or visit www.masqueradetheatre.com.
(The Villager 12.16.04)
(The Courier 12.17.04)