Recipe for show on Jewish mothers


`Mamaleh!' musical celebrates friendship

Theater Column

April 24, 2003|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

It might have been a sign that something was right - or maybe it was just the power of suggestion - but near the end of the second act of Mamaleh! I could swear I smelled chicken soup.

The reason this was a positive omen is that Mamaleh! is a celebration of Jewish motherhood (the title is Yiddish for "little mother") and friendship. But chicken soup aside, this chamber musical by Mitchell Uscher and Roy Singer is largely formulaic. It's the kind of show in which characters tend to say such things as "do you remember ... " as lead-ins to songs.

But the five-actor musical is also infused with so much warmth, you can almost overlook such shortcomings, as well as the variable and, at times, off-key singing at the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre.

And, there are some genuinely lovely moments when the richness of the basic themes and the performances come together, and you realize what might have been. The best of these is a second act number called "It's No Crime to Be Lonely," sung by Joan Ashwell as a recent widow and Susan Shulman Porter as her much-divorced friend.

The show's thin framework is a regular canasta game held at the home of a middle-aged grandmother (Maribeth Eckenrode), who lives with her mother (Joan Corcoran) and on this occasion is visited by her daughter (Aimee Lambing, who has the loveliest voice in the show).

Ashwell and Porter's characters arrive to play cards as usual, but their hostess' fourth friend never shows up. Her absence creates the delay that allows the women to reminisce, rejoice and carp in song about subjects ranging from vacations in Boca Raton to irritating daughters-in-law.

When the women learn why their friend didn't make it, they begin thinking about what matters most in their lives. Unfortunately, that's where Uscher's already thin script takes a turn down Illogical Lane. Everything up to this point has suggested that a crisis would bring these seemingly inseparable friends even closer together. Instead, two of them decide it's time to move thousands of miles apart. If this show really were chicken soup, this would be the point where you realized the seasoning was a bit off.

Nor is the vocalizing all that tends to falter. Some of director Deborah Newman's staging is also a bit clumsy. For example, the ladies' round card table seems to get carted on and off stage ad infinitum, and, though Corcoran displays comic flair in the minor roles of a waitress and a bellhop, the director lets that flair get far too hammy.

Overall, however, the cast brings plenty of heart to the material - even if that material is heavy on the schmaltz. But what the heck, it'd be downright un-American to come down too hard on a show that stirs up fond memories of dear old mom.

Show times at the Spotlighters, 817 St. Paul St., are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, through May 17. Tickets are $15. For more information, call 410-752-1225.

Center Stage

Center Stage will celebrate its 17th annual Young Playwrights Festival Monday with professional staged readings of four student plays, selected from 309 entries statewide.

Meatballs, by Lauren Morrell and Selena Baker, seniors at Northern High School in Calvert County, is a spoof of Mafioso lore, set primarily in an Italian restaurant.

In the Bag, by Juliana Avery, a junior at Colonel Zadok Magruder High School in Montgomery County, offers a comic analysis of handbags delivered by two men while their wives shop.

For the Love of Greed, by Ariel Zhao, an eighth-grader at Fallston Middle School in Harford County, relates a tale of mistaken identities, set in the Middle Ages.

Unconscious, by Kevin Basilio, a fifth-grader at Indian Creek Elementary School in Anne Arundel County, is an account of an evil baby sitter.

The evening will begin at 7 p.m. and includes an awards ceremony presided over by Maryland first lady Kendel Ehrlich and Center Stage managing director Michael Ross. The ceremony will also honor four other students whose plays will receive future readings in their home counties, as well as five recipients of honorable mentions.

Admission is free, but reservations are required. Call 410-685-3200, Ext. 362.

Maryland export

On Saturday, former Marylander David Drake takes his show, Son of Drakula, back to its roots when he performs the solo performance piece in Croatia, his great-grandfather's native country. A theatrical exploration of his family's possible connections to Vlad the Impaler, Son of Drakula made its world premiere at the Theatre Project last May and was subsequently presented at New York's Dance Theater Workshop.

Saturday's performance will be part of the Queer Zagreb festival. The following weekend, Drake will perform the show in Rijeka, the coastal town where his great-grandfather set sail for America a century ago. Drake writes that he is especially looking forward to performing "this story for the people who helped me uncover, discover and recover my roots: the Drakula family. ... It will be a unique and extraordinary homecoming."

Memorial service

A memorial service for Frankie Hewitt, the producing artistic director of Ford's Theatre in Washington who died in February, will be held at the theater, 511 Tenth St., N.W., Washington, at 3 p.m. Monday. Speakers memorializing Hewitt, who brought live theater back to Ford's more than 100 years after Lincoln was assassinated there, will include CBS 60 Minutes correspondent Mike Wallace, Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton, actor James Whitmore, dancer Hinton Battle and director David H. Bell. The service is open to the public.

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