BOTTOM LINE: A comic and campy musical spoof of the movie Mildred Pierce.
Around since Prohibition, Theatre 80 has played host in its long history to performers as diverse as Thelonious Monk and Frank Sinatra (who made his debut here). Now in its 39th season, the venue brings the legendary performer Varla Jean Merman (neé Jeffery Roberson) to its New York stage in the title role of the campy musical spoof Mildred Fierce. The show, produced by Gold Dust Orphans in association with TWEED Theatreworks, played earlier this year in Boston.
Playwright Ryan Landry hews fairly closely to the basic plot of the 1945 Oscar-winning Joan Crawford vehicle, although his comic sensibility cuts through over the melodrama. Merman is Mildred, an obsessively devoted mother who cuts loose her layabout husband to start over so that her eldest daughter Veda (played by Penny Champayne, aka Scott Martino) will always have “perfume, pumps and pachyderms.” In order to provide for Veda she becomes a baker and business owner, opening Mildred’s Pie Hole and later more restaurants. She sacrifices everything for her ungrateful daughter who demands of her mother that they get a car like they used to -- “a black one and a maid like we used to, a white one” -- while being romanced by a man who later takes up with Veda.
Like Crawford, Merman brings enormous eyes to the role -- which she uses to hilarious effect throughout the show -- and even bigger shoulders and breasts in her many impressively paced costume changes. Merman owns the stage as Mildred Fierce from the moment she appears, feigning surprise to find a microphone in her purse and getting laughs with sidelong smirks and those eyes. Merman is game to wink at the audience and they’re eager to eat out of her hands, loving it as she removes an earring to answer the phone and then answers with the other ear anyway. During a running gag in which Mildred is unable to remember her other daughter Kaye’s name, she refers to her as “what’s her face” and then breaks the fourth wall to say “it’s going to get a lot worse.” The committed audience warmly forgives some of the more groan-inducing lines such as Veda’s “Congratulations mother, your pie hole is packed.”
Although it’s Merman’s showcase, the Orphans troupe are an enthusiastic bunch, breaking into more than a half dozen numbers, complete with tap dancing, kick lines and an assortment of outfits. As choreographed by Delta Miles (who doubles as Mildred’s business partner Wally), they keep the energetic show moving along. Martino also notably designed the costumes, which feature an array of polka dots, sequins and hats.
If you’ve never had the chance to experience Varla Jean Merman, her interpretation of Mildred Pierce is a great introduction. It’s a bawdy blast, but even though they have matinees, this show is for adults only.
(Mildred Fierce plays at Theatre 80, 80 St. Marks, through October 27, 2013. VIP tickets are $35 and general admission is $25. Performances are Saturdays at 8:30PM and 10:30PM;
and Sundays at 3:30PM. To purchase tickets visit brownpapertickets.com/event/380329.)