BEVERLY — Showstopping anthems that are sung by, to, or about flamboyantly outsize figures have long been the signature of Broadway tunesmith Jerry Herman, from the titular salute by the Harmonia Gardens waiters to matchmaker Dolly Gallagher Levi in “Hello, Dolly!’’ to drag performer Albin’s defiant manifesto-in-song, “I Am What I Am,’’ in “La Cage aux Folles.’’
The anthemic title number in Herman’s “Mame’’ is performed near the end of Act 1 in North Shore Music Theatre’s production, and it’s a dandy, sung by a high-kicking ensemble in tomato-red hunting jackets. It’s also sorely needed by that point, because until then NSMT’s amiable but uneven “Mame’’ is a few bubbles shy of the champagne fizz required to make this 1966 musical really sparkle.
Much the same is true of the lead performance by Paige Davis as the carefree Manhattan bohemian Mame Dennis, suddenly thrust into a maternal role in the late 1920s when she is handed custody of her orphaned young nephew, Patrick (played by Jake Ryan Flynn as a boy and Jonathan Shew as a young man). For “Mame’’ to really achieve liftoff, Auntie Mame needs to seem larger-than-life, someone who appears almost as magical to us as she does to the star-stuck Patrick.
But Davis’s Mame seldom registers as more than life-size in this production, directed by Charles Repole. Mame’s eccentricities come across as gestures rather than expressions of bone-deep opposition to convention, as affectations rather than a way of life that is central to her identity.
Davis, the host of TLC’s “Trading Spaces’’ and a veteran stage performer on Broadway and elsewhere, fares somewhat better in Act 2, when Mame’s blend of ebullience and glamour has been tempered by personal loss. But her performance still falls well short of the standard set by other leading ladies in big showcase roles at North Shore Music Theatre over the past decade, such as Shoshana Bean (Fanny Brice in “Funny Girl’’), Kelly Felthous (Elle Woods in “Legally Blonde’’), and Lisa O’Hare (Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady’’).
Several strong supporting performances help to fill in the gaps of this “Mame,’’ especially those by Ellen Harvey as stage actress Vera Charles and Lauren Cohn as Agnes Gooch, Mame’s timorous secretary. It is Agnes whom Mame exhorts toward adventure with the most famous line in the show — “Life is a banquet, and most poor sons-of-bitches are starving to death!’’ — and Cohn wrings numerous laughs out of Agnes’s journey from nerd to libertine, which has very visible consequences. Cohn nails her big number, “Gooch’s Song,’’ in which Agnes narrates her trip to the wild side and informs her mentor: “If life is a banquet, I stuffed myself.’’
As for Harvey, her comic mastery is as evident in her imperious pronunciation of a single word (“Pity’’) as it is in the sardonic back-and-forth of “Bosom Buddies,’’ the duet in which Vera and Mame trade sly digs, frenemy-style. (I still smile at the memory of Harvey’s hilarious portrayal of the secretary Miss Jones in the Daniel Radcliffe-starring 2011 Broadway revival of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.’’)
Also assets to this “Mame’’ are George Dvorsky as Mame’s chivalrous, good-natured suitor (later husband) Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside; NSMT mainstay David Coffee, fuming and sputtering amusingly as Patrick’s legal trustee; and Ellen Peterson, another familiar presence in Beverly, who shoulders several roles, including Burnside’s mother.
Herman’s lively score is a treat, though it’s not quite the equal of his work for “Hello, Dolly!’’ and “La Cage.’’ Michael Lichtefeld devised fluidly expressive choreography that is ably executed by a first-rate ensemble (a consistent strength at North Shore Music Theatre, whatever the quality of any given production). The lavish costumes are an eyeful, originally designed by Gregg Barnes. It was the theater’s own costume shop, though, that devised the funniest outfit in the show: a deliberately over-the-top Southern belle getup for Mame that would make Scarlett O’Hara gnash her teeth in envy, complete with a mile-wide skirt and a hat you could land a plane on.
Earlier, when we first see her, disporting herself like a Queen of the Revels among wealthy society friends in her Beekman Place apartment, she is clutching a bugle. It’s a visual correlative to the opening lines of the character-defining title tune that will be later sung to her: “You coax the blues right out of the horn, Mame.’’ But Davis ultimately does not coax enough vivid or varied notes out of the big, bold instrument that is Mame.
Book by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. Music and lyrics by Jerry Herman. Directed by Charles Repole. Choreographed by Michael Lichtefeld. Presented by North Shore Music Theatre, Beverly, through June 17. Tickets $59-$84, 978-232-7200, www.nsmt.orgDon Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.