by Marilyn Lester
Mabel Mercer was never a household name. Unlike her contemporaries such as Ethel Waters or Ella Fitzgerald, Mercer was not widely known – but she had a profound impact on generations of vocalists who recognized her genius for telling a story through song. In Mabel Madness, Tony Award Winner Trezana Beverley not only captures the essence of Mercer, but has written a narrative that gives breadth and depth to the life and legacy of this amazing singer’s singer.
Mabel Madness opens with the iconic image of Mercer in her chair, singing in her unique fashion – it was a style she developed in her early career in Paris. She’s older now, in New York, waiting to be picked up by her friend and promoter, Donald Smith. Mercer is convinced that the mystery surrounding the evening to come is that she’ll be fired – washed up, finished. Mabel sings “The Story Is My Song,” a new composition by Barry Levitt with lyrics by Peter Napolitano, who also directed Mabel Madness (along with Frances Hill). Thus is set into motion the chronicle of Mercer’s “who knew?” life.
Mercer was born in 1900, the illegitimate child of a white British mother, a Music Hall performer, and black American father, a musician. She was raised largely by her grandmother and then sent to convent school. Herein, Beverley has captured the through-line that gives substance to the tale of Mabel Mercer. Woven among the events of the time line are the threads of identity, abandonment, and a search for mother and family, all anchored in Mercer’s staunch faith and belief in the wisdom of a Higher Power. Most of the narrative is delivered from a staging area of trunks and wardrobes; costumes and clothing help tell the story. Scenic Designer Tabitha Pease reserves center stage for a bistro table and chairs and stage left for Mercer’s “song chair.” The set is simple but effective. Rear projections by Nicholas Blade Guldner help Beverly tell the story with enlightening, attention-grabbing photos and images.
Mabel Mercer always knew she wanted to sing. At age 14 she left school and joined her aunt in a vaudeville and Music Hall tour of Britain and the Continent. She made Paris her home early on. Paris was welcoming to mixed race and black performers and she soon found herself the toast of Ada “Bricktop” Smith’s “Chez Bricktop.” There, Mercer led a fabulously charmed life, meeting the legends of the era: Cole Porter, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and many more. Yet, Mercer is haunted by the deeply personal ache for mother and nurturing. The songs “You Will Wear Velvet,” “Summertime,” “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” and “Love For Sale” help to move the plot along. A second original number by Levitt and Napolitano, the eponymous “Mabel Madness,” culminates the Paris period, along with “If You Leave Paris.”
With the outbreak of World War II, Mercer headed for New York City, establishing a solid career as the queen of cabaret and café society, despite vocal problems that diminished the quality of her singing voice greatly. Yet Mercer has an ability that far transcends her vocal chords, and that was a rare and superlative talent for acting. It is this skill, deftly emulated by Beverly, that enabled Mercer to interpret a lyric and deliver it with total authority. It was the quality that made Mercer great and which drew other singers to her, such as Frank Sinatra, who famously declared that everything he knew he learned from Mabel Mercer.
It’s also in New York that Mabel literally finds the mother who abandoned her, along with love in her life partner, Harry Beard. Beverly sings the wry Porter tune, “Down in the Depths (On the 90th Floor),” “Let Me Love You” and “Just One of Those Things.” At the end of Mabel Madness we come full circle to the point of departure. Far from being turned out to pasture, it turns out that Donald Smith is escorting Mercer to a very special ceremony – she’s being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. By the close of Mabel Madness, Mercer realizes that although she was denied a mother’s love and a family in her life, she’s become “Mother Mabel” to the next generation of performers, and had a true and lasting family after all.
As an actress, Trezana Beverly delivers a convincing and compelling performance as Mabel Mercer. But it is as a singer that she excels, exactly reproducing Mercer’s unique story song style; here, with eyes closed, it would be easy to think Mercer was back among the living. Hat’s off to Beverly for bringing to life a cultural treasure and oft overlooked performer in the wider history of popular song.
Musical Direction for Mabel Madness is by Tuffus Zimbabwe. Costume design is by Gail Cooper-Hecht, lighting design by Christina Watanabe, and choreography by Brenna Hughes. Production stage manager is Jill Woodward.
Mabel Madness plays Mon, Wed, Thurs at 7 pm; Fri at 8 pm; Sat at 3 pm and 8 pm; and Sun at 3 pm, Extended thru April 10 – running time 85 minutes
Urban Stages, 259 West 30th St. 212-421-1380 www.urbanstages.org