"Why did I do it? Where did it get me?" sings Mama Rose at the end of "Gypsy" - the ultimate musical about mother love; but onstage at Machine they're quoted by Varla Jean Merman at the onset of "Mildred Fierce," Ryan Landry's smart and deliriously funny parody of another tome about mother love: the classic Joan Crawford film noir "Mildred Pierce."
That the lyric is sung by Varla Jean, the self-proclaimed illegitimate daughter of Ethel Merman, makes for a meta-moment. After all, it was her mother who first sang those lyrics some fifty years ago; but their inclusion here is both an obvious reference to the great Merm and a spot-on assessment of Mildred's dilemma. Like Rose, she's estranged from her daughter, the spoiled Vita; but, unlike Rose, she isn't a self-absorbed monster. No, Mildred Pierce has long been synonymous with the self-sacrificing mother that does everything for her daughters. Or daughter, in this case, because though Mildred has two, it is Vita with whom Mildred obsesses. Her other daughter is just a running gag: Mildred never can remember her name.
Pierce was the role that won Crawford her sole Oscar in the 1945 Michael Curtiz melodrama (well-worth a look if you have never seen it). More recently out director Todd Haynes went back to the source - the James M. Cain 1941 best-seller - and offered a far more ambivalent take on the story for HBO, winning Kate Winslet an Emmy in the process. But it is Crawford’s version, framed as a murder mystery, that Landry uses as a template; so expect numerous references to Crawford’s sudsy performance and temperamental personal life. ("Veda ... Bring me the axe.") Or for the mink-coated Merman to evoke the over-the-top manner reminiscent of Faye Dunaway, Crawford’s most vivid impersonator in the legendary "Mommie Dearest."
But this being a musical, expect Mildred’s rise as a pie-baking restauranteur to be realized with song parodies that punctuate the action. Landry takes any number of familiar (well, if you’re a show queen bottom) show tunes ("Easy Street," "Will-a-Mania," "Sit Down You’re Rocking The Boat"), and gives them his usual cheeky sensibility. Who else would rhyme "Carmen Ghia" and "Gonorrhea?" Take that, Stephen Sondheim. The numbers are given a leg-up (quite literally in Ms. Merman’s case) by Delta Miles’ vibrant choreography, which evokes the style of Gower Champion, miraculously transposed on the tiny Machine stage. Miles does some scene-stealing of his own as Wally, the oily real estate baron who acts as Mildred’s frenenemy in this story of corporate one-up-man’s-ship, replete with a frenetic tap solo.
No one, though, upstages Merman. How many performers can both sing like Sarah Brightman and Lauren Bacall (sometimes in the same number) and do cartwheels across the stage? Merman is a dizzy wonder who imbues Mildred with comic pathos - she (or should it be he since Varla is Jeffery Roberson?), both parodies Crawford’s great performance and pays homage to it. Indeed what makes "Mildred Fierce" so much fun is how it translates the source material into a screwy satire of film noir films. That is underscored by the clever set design: a backdrop of a black-and-white cityscape adorned with movie posters of such B-movies as "Secrets of a Model" and period newspaper ads filling the stage. Color is added with Scott Martino’s expert costume designs, which skillfully evoke the source material, most notably when Mildred appears in gingham in the first-act finale with torpedo breasts so reminiscent of the period.
James P. Byrne’s breezy direction keeps the story moving at a breathless clip. A lot of plot is shoehorned into the show’s two-hour running time (it took Haynes some six hours to tell the same story); and there are the usual run of bad puns and pop culture reference that add to the frivolity.
Of course, what Landry does best is contour the roles to many of his Gold Dust Orphans regulars. Olive Another wisecracks her way through the Eve Arden part of Mildred’s loyal aide-de-camp (camp being the operative word in describing her performance.)
Penny Champayne lampoons Vita’s manner and social-climbing attitude with haughty aplomb (the references to Auntie Mame’s Bunny Bixler are hilarious). Brooks Braselman appears to have channeled Truman Capote as the womanizing playboy Monty Brigadoon - somehow the incongruity of that clicks with his hilarious performance. And Patty York’s droll Bette Davis cameo is an added bonus - referencing Crawford’s legendary rivalry with Davis. As her long-suffering husband, Chris Loftus plays straight man to Mildred with doggered sincerity; Grace Carney gives - what’s her name? - Kaye, Mildred’s forgotten daughter, the manner of a captain of the field hockey team (and all that implies); and Liza Lott shines in a brief cameo as a trashy chorus girl.
Landry plays two roles: a snotty, upper-class matron (replete with an aviary in her hat) and a white maid that speaks in a voice that echoes Butterfly McQueen from the film. The latter is the most daring bit of satire in the show - a racial stereotype, but one rooted in its source material. Like much of Landry’s work, it could offend, but it also suggests that nothing is sacred in his barbs - even political correctness.
What makes "Mildred Fierce" such a pleasure from start to finish is how adeptly Landry and Byrne mine the talents of the cast. This is an ensemble show with a bright, shiny star at its center. That Varla Jean Merman isn’t as famous as RuPaul is a mystery to me. If you have never seen her self-deprecating persona, then get to Machine. And even if you have, don’t miss it: "Mildred Fierce" makes for a perfect vehicle for this dynamic drag icon.
"Mildred Fierce" continues through March 17, 2013 at Machine, 1254 Bolyston Street, Boston, MA. Performances are Thursday, Friday and Saturday night at 8:00 p.m. and
Sunday at 5:00 p.m. For more information, the Gold Dust Orphans webpage.