The latest offering in New York City Center Encores! concert series was the Jerry Herman musical, Mack & Mabel. Originally on Broadway during the 1974 season, it received disappointing reviews and had a mere 66 performances before it closed after nine weeks. This production also has its problems, but it was enormously entertaining and worth seeing, mostly because of the Herman score and the delicious musical numbers. Herman has written the music for some of Broadway’s most iconic shows, like Hello, Dolly!, Mame and La Cage Aux Folles. Because of his recent death this past December, the show was a tribute to him, with huge, framed photos of him displayed during the entr’acte.
Based on a idea by Leonard Spigelgass, the book, originally written by Michael Stewart (who wrote the book for Hello, Dolly! as well as other shows) was revised by his sister, Francine Pascal – because it was always problematic. It is based on the true-life relationship of silent screen pioneer Mack Sennett and one of the first movie stars, Mabel Normand. Mack Sennett created the madcap Keystone Kops and Bathing Beauties, and famously used many of the basics of visual comedy, like slipping on a banana peel or getting a pie in the face. Mabel Normand was a popular comedienne, but also the damsel-in-distress heroine. Theirs was a love-at-first-sight, can’t live with each other and can’t live without each other kind of romance. His constant pressure on her led her to a downward spiral of pills and alcohol. She left him for William Desmond Taylor, another movie director, who led her further astray, deeper into drugs and into a scandal that included his murder and her early death.
Somehow, the book still doesn’t quite work. The dialogue seemed to lack any emotional connection. Despite the personal charm of the performers (Douglas Sills as Mack; Alexandra Socha as Mabel), things only came alive during the musical numbers. Oh, but the musical numbers… How wonderful!
Originally directed and choreographed by Gower Champion, Josh Rhodes directed and choreographed this version. The rambunctious Keystone Kops routine was genuinely funny and gave a sense of why those silly comedies were so popular. The “Tap Your Troubles Away” chorus of tap dancers in shiny costumes in front of a curtain of tinsel was the most dramatic moment of the show, balancing their cheerfulness with a murder. And the touching songs, like “I Won’t Send Roses” (which has become a cabaret mainstay) brought more emotional understanding than any of the dialogue. If someone could solve the book problem, Mack & Mabel is definitely worth having another go at Broadway. It is, perhaps, an old-fashioned musical, but like last season’s Hello, Dolly! should find an audience in today’s troubled times.
The performers were all of top quality. Sills commanded the stage and Socha was especially appealing with her ability to belt out a song or project an emotional quality. (The role of Mabel was originated by Bernadette Peters.) Lilli Cooper was Lottie Ames (who apparently was famous in her day). Cooper is tall, with a strong voice and strong stage presence, as well as an ability to dance. (She was nominated for her role as Julie in the musical, Tootsie, in 2019.) Major Attaway as Fatty Arbuckle created laughs and moved well despite his appropriate girth. In fact, all the actors performed well.
But the real star of the show was the music and lyrics of Jerry Herman. The lyrics are clever and rich with meaning, but deceptively simple; and the music is tuneful and engaging. Ten years after Mack & Mabel had closed, Torvill and Dean, the Olympic ice dancers, used the recorded overture to perform one of their routines. The music caused such a sensation in England that there was a run on copies of the cast album and the album’s producers had to manufacture more to fill the demand.
I am constantly amazed at how polished the productions are in the Encores! series given the short period of time they are allotted to mount it. Although there is a mention in the program that this is a “concert” version and so performers may carry their scripts, there was no sign of that. (Although I might mention a moment when Sills went out of character to laughingly acknowledge a mistake in his lines, which created a real and sweet connection with the audience at the performance under review.) What I saw was briskly paced and appeared well-rehearsed. The dancing and singing numbers were flawlessly and fabulously performed. The set resembled a movie sound stage with catwalks, with added elements to indicate other locations (design by Allen Moyer); really beautiful, fun and/or sparkly costumes by Amy Clark; some video to indicate the look of silent films and Mabel Normand’s acting style; and onstage, the masterful Encores! Orchestra led by music director Rob Berman.
We should all be grateful to the Encores! series for allowing us to see productions of musicals that we may have just read about. Even flawed, Mack & Mabel is terrific entertainment.
Mack & Mabel (through February 23, 2020)
New York City Center Encores!
New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call CITYTIX 212-581-1212 or visit http://www.NYCityCenter.org
Running time: two and a half hours including one intermission