There's something called a Broadway idiom. It is indefinable, but it has something to do with exhilaration, playfulness, high energy, polished professionalism and calculated risk. All these words describe the Santa Barbara Civic Light Opera in its season-opener, "Mame."
There may be no other musical whose success depends so heavily on one person's acting. Toni Kaye has the presence and aplomb to play a grande dame to the hilt, and then some. Appearing in almost every scene, she commands the stage as the eccentric, wealthy, artsy aunt who undertakes the education of her 10-year-old nephew.
Awakening at the crack of noon, giving 13 cocktail parties in two weeks for a colorful bunch of Greenwich Village bohemian friends, Mame designs an education for young Patrick that includes "stirring up his libido," art lessons, dance lessons and school at the nearby Laboratory for Life, where clothes aren't a requirement. All this unconventionality builds to a marvelously choreographed scene where Mame, Patrick and their libertine friends are hauled away in a paddy wagon for frequenting an after-hours speak-easy. (It's during Prohibition.)
The glitzy production numbers, choreographed by Kaye, delight without a glitch. Jerry Herman's music and lyrics, "My Best Girl," "We Need a Little Christmas," "Mame," while not in the same league with those of Irving Berlin or Rodgers and Hammerstein, have a lilting charm. The Santa Barbara Civic Light Opera orchestra, led by Steve Domek, adds an element of live excitement, but they need to tone down the brass. The only thing really wrong with this show is a glitch in the sound system that makes everyone's voices sound shrill. It should be corrected pronto.
As 10-year-old Patrick, Devin Oatway is a good little actor who can hold his own with a stage full of Equity actors. Bouncy Karyl Lynn Burns, as his frumpish, spinsterish nanny, creates a memorable comic character. Carol Swarbrick seems perfectly cast as Mame's old pal/rival.
The stock market crash of '29 plummets Mame into instant poverty, and the next few scenes present a lesson in how to be broke with class. Of course, Mame snags a millionaire husband, Beauregard (Fred Lehto), and adjourns to his Southern plantation to prevail in a fox hunt. (She brings the fox back alive.)
In Act II, Patrick (now Paul Formanek) has grown up and fallen in love with a conventional snob who is the antithesis of Mame. Joyce Hardy does a Katharine Hepburn imitation that is outrageously overdone, yet somehow works.
There's an amusing party scene where Mame sets out to shock everyone by decorating her apartment with avant-garde art and serving pickled python, sheep's fleas, owl's eggs and bees. Of course, Patrick ends up marrying an old classmate from the Laboratory of Life, and the last scene shows Mame, years later, whisking off her 10-year-old grandnephew on a round-the-world trip to give him a proper education in life.
This is the kind of show where the audience comes out afterward smiling and humming. Ticket demand is so high, the Santa Barbara Civic Light Opera is trying to schedule extra performances.
WHERE AND WHEN: "Mame," directed by Wayne Bryan. Choreographed by Toni Kaye. Presented by the Santa Barbara Civic Light Opera at the Lobero Theater, 33 E. Canon Perdido, Santa Barbara. Ticket prices: $22.50; students and senior citizens, $21; children under 12, $11.25. Telephone 963-0761. Plays through Oct. 28.