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That dame named Mame

(ran PW, PS editions)

It's been 15 years since Oldsmar resident Wendy Sweeney played Nellie Forbush in South Pacific and Maria in West Side Story at theaters in Michigan and California, and, now that she's in Florida, she feels ready to take on the title role in Jerry Herman's big, brassy musical, Mame.

The show continues at the Tarpon Springs Performing Arts Center through Nov. 9.

Based on Patrick Dennis's autobiographical novel, Auntie Mame, the play tells what happens when the fiercely independent Mame Dennis suddenly inherits a young, orphaned nephew, Patrick, and his nursemaid, the seriously wacky Agnes Gooch. Mame doesn't change her ways; she changes theirs, making all their lives much more interesting.

"I see Mame as a woman who loves life, is very independent and wants to get as much as she can from life," Ms. Sweeney said. "She doesn't want to be put in a box _ a very unconventional woman."

Set in New York from 1928 to 1946, Mame battles with Patrick's attorney, the unctuous Linsey Woolsey (Bruce D'Amico) for control of her young charge. When Linsey finds out that young Patrick has learned how to mix a wild martini, he decides the boy should be shipped off to a boarding school, away from Mame's "bad" influence. The permissive Mame wants Patrick to learn about the real world and to judge people on their human values rather than their net worth.

The musical hit Broadway with a bang in mid-1966 and ran for 1,508 performances, establishing a young Angela Lansbury as one of the reigning queens of showbiz. It has since become a favorite of regional and community theaters and touring companies.

And no wonder. Herman's songs We Need a Little Christmas, If He Walked into My Life, Open a New Window and the show-stopping Mame carry the story along on a tidal wave of hope and optimism. Watching Mame's relationship with and influence upon her young charge _ and his love for her _ pulls at the heartstrings.

"At first, she doesn't know what to do with her nephew," Ms. Sweeney said. "But then, like any mother, she falls in love with him."

She should know; she has four children herself and taught elementary school classes for several years before opening her own dog-walking business in the East Lake area.

Ms. Sweeney kept her voice in shape between musicals by performing with choral groups and touring with ARC, a music and drama group that worked at youth camps.

"Wendy is wonderful," said Dick Poole, director of the show and winner of several Lary Awards for directing and costuming. "Her voice _ well, she is going to knock your block off. When she sings If He Walked into My Life, there isn't a dry eye in the house."

Ms. Sweeney is joined in the cast by theater veteran Pennie Goldman (Calamity Jane in Deadwood Dick) as the daffy Agnes Gooch; Cameron Williamson (Professor in the The Wogglebug) as young Patrick; Angy Hayes (The Women; Pillow Talk) as Mame's writing assistant Pegeen Ryan; and Matthew Kish as the older Patrick.

W. Dale Laird (Marryin' Sam in L'il Abner) will play the snobby Mr. Upson, the father of Patrick's girlfriend, Gloria; and Doris Cerio (Mrs. Almond in The Heiress) plays his clueless wife. The silly and shallow Gloria is played by Tiffany Morocco, a student at Mitchell High School in Pasco County. Mame's house boy Ito is played by stage newcomer Juan Castro.

Mame's best pal, Vera Charles, is played by Val Sanford (California Suite; Mama Rose in Gypsy). Don Edmiston (Harold Hill in The Music Man) plays Mame's beau and financial rescuer, the effusive Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside.

Mary Ann Boos is musical director, and Jane Geddings is choreographer.

"We have lots of choreography in this show," Poole said.

Poole also is making the costumes for the 32-member cast.

"Mame has 16 costume changes," he said. "I have two ladies in the wings dressing her between scenes."

Set designer Jim Demetrius's sets also change dramatically throughout the show, just as Mame changes husbands and travels the world picking up decorator items.

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