Joan Crawford would have seen a lot of herself in Varla Jean Merman. Same wide, staring eyes. Same immovable coiffure. Same Rob Gronkowski shoulders.
In “Mildred Fierce,’’ Merman takes a signature Crawford role and devours it like one of the pies that poor Mildred slaves over and then sells so she can keep her daughter Veda in the lap of luxury, not that the rotten brat is the least bit grateful for her mother’s endless sacrifices . . .
Sorry, got carried away there. It’s just hard to see the expression of saintly suffering on Mildred’s face and not feel the stirrings of indignation on behalf of this deluded Mommie Dimmest. And Merman (real name Jeffery Roberson) certainly proves to have an expression for every occasion, delivering a bravura performance in Ryan Landry’s dizzily entertaining musical sendup of “Mildred Pierce.’’
Heaven knows that heavy-breathing 1945 melodrama is ripe for satire, but HBO chose to ladle on still more melodrama in its lavish and solemn 2011 miniseries version of “Mildred Pierce,’’ directed by Todd Haynes and starring Kate Winslet as Mildred. While Landry is nowhere near as reverent — not reverent at all, in fact — he does stick to the basics of the plot. So “Mildred Fierce,’’ which is directed with finesse by James P. Byrne, chronicles Mildred’s efforts to rebound from the breakup of her marriage by building a pie business (Mildred’s Pie Hole) and then opening a successful restaurant that broadens into a chain of eateries, all so Veda will not lack for “perfume, pumps, and pachyderms.’’ (Don’t ask).
“Mildred Fierce’’ is a more fully realized work than “Rudolph the Red Necked Reindeer,’’ Landry’s recent holiday production with the Gold Dust Orphans. The set by Amelia Gossett and Lauren Duffy immerses the audience in a 1940s ambience with a charcoal-textured collage of period advertisements and movie posters (“Double Indemnity,’’ “The Man With Nine Lives’’). But the threat of anachronism holds no terrors for Landry, whose clever songs borrow melodies and attitudes from post-’40s musicals like “Guys and Dolls,’’ “Gypsy,’’ and “Annie,’’ and even from Roy Orbison’s early ’60s pop hit “Running Scared.’’ The musical numbers (choreographed with zest by Delta Miles) come out of nowhere, on the wooziest pretext, but you’re not likely to care when, for instance, the ensemble bursts into a “42nd Street’’-inspired routine, or when Mildred suddenly turns into a nightclub-style chanteuse for no reason at all — except that it provides a showcase for Merman. Which is reason enough.
Part of Landry’s comedic stock in trade is to simply take the original source material and then push matters to their illogical extremes. So Merman’s Mildred is not just pathologically devoted to the mean-spirited, snobbish Veda (played by Penny Champayne, the stage name of Scott Martino), absorbing her every cruelty, including Veda’s assertion that mom smells of grease, or her insistence on playing the piano when Mildred has some dialogue to get through.
No, this family relationship is so one-sided that Mildred can’t even remember the name of her other daughter — an issue that becomes less pressing when said daughter (named, for the record, Kaye, and played by Grace Carney) meets an unfortunate demise early on.
Martino also designed the production’s costumes, which are typically superb, ranging from the genuinely stylish (an array of tight-fitting dresses for Mildred) to the outré (a spaceship-size hat with a bird on the brim that is worn by a dowager portrayed by Landry. He also makes several amusing appearances as an arm-flapping maid named Butterball). Able supporting performances are turned in by Olive Another as Ida, Mildred’s best friend; Chris Loftus as Mildred’s husband; Brooks Brasselman as Monty Brigadoon, the white-clad cad who two-times Mildred with her own daughter; and Delta Miles as Wally, a sleazeball with designs on Mildred.
Wally keeps coming on to Mildred, telling her at one point: “I know I look like Fred Flintstone, but I can make your bed rock.’’ But Mildred has her pride, and her virtue. Drawing herself up to her full, imposing height, she replies: “Wally, you’re looking for French’s Yellow, and I’m strictly Grey Poupon.’’ That she is.