By Brian Scott Lipton
“Who’s that fascinating creature” on the stage of City Center? While the late Jerry Herman’s lyric may specifically refer to the soon-to-be silent film star Mabel Normand, it now applies to the 1974 Broadway musical about her, Mack & Mabel, which ran a mere eight weeks – despite the presences of Robert Preston and Bernadette Peters and a score that now has one of the largest cult followings in history – and which hasn’t had a major New York City revival until now.
From the second this show begins — especially in director-choreographer Josh Rhodes’ polished production – one wonders if Encores! has unearthed yet another Chicago, a show that “flopped” mostly because it was ahead of its time, or another Merrily We Roll Along, a piece whose virtues can never outweigh its flaws. The answer, at least for me, is a little bit of both.
Michael Stewart’s book tries to create a tragic romance around Mack Sennett, the blustery, emotionally guarded silent film mogul (embodied here by a super-gruff, booming-voiced Douglas Sills), and his much younger discovery, Mabel Normand (the strong-lunged yet emotionally sensitive Alexandra Socha) whom he transforms from deli worker to plucky comedienne practically overnight.
In real life, the pair’s relationship, both personal and professional, lasted a mere seven years. But here (and the show’s book has been endlessly reworked by his sister Francine Pascal), it stops and starts for nearly two decades, despite it being doomed by their temperaments from the beginning. Moreover, the script varies so far from the couple’s actual history (and really minimizes Normand’s many contributions to the early days of Hollywood) that it can frustrate anybody with even minimal knowledge of the actual past.
Worse yet, much like Merrily, the story’s leading man is more anti-hero than hero (although there’s some attempt through some inner monologues to soften Sennett), which simply doesn’t allow us to emotionally invest in their possible (and decidedly imaginary) happy ending. Moreover, Mack & Mabel, unlike many musicals (especially Herman’s own Hello, Dolly), gives its supporting cast very little to do, so it’s not completely surprising that other than the wonderful Lilli Cooper (as the tart-tongued Lottie Ames) and the great Michael Berresse, dancing up a storm and snarling deliciously as Mabel’s lascivious lover William Desmond Taylor, no one else on stage makes much of an impression – or has a chance to do so. That puts the show’s burden even more squarely on the shoulders of Sills and Socha, meaning one’s reaction to this production will depend heavily to one’s feelings about their performances.
Still, for many of the musical’s longtime fans, the book will always be secondary to Herman’s superb score (which, rather shockingly, was one of the few elements of the show to not receive a Tony Award nomination). Have there been more poignant ballads heard anywhere than “Time Heals Everything” or “I Won’t Send Roses”? Has anger and frustration ever better expressed than in Mabel’s fiery Act I closer “Wherever He Ain’t”? Can you even leave the theater without humming the exuberant “Look What’s Happened to Mabel?” or the sweet-but-not-saccharine “When Mabel Walks in the Room” or the superbly sardonic “Tap Your Troubles Away,” led here by a vibrant Cooper, backed by a superb dancing ensemble? And have these songs ever sounded better than they do with the fabulous City Center Encores! orchestra (led by Rob Berman) behind them? I think not.
Ultimately, unlike “Chicago,” I don’t think this show will ever make “the big time” (aka transfer to Broadway), so anyone in even a passing interest in the material should run to the City Center and grab whatever tickets remain!
Photos: Joan Marcus
Mack & Mabel continues at New York City Center (131 West 55th Street) through February 23. Call 212-581-1212 or visit www.nycitycenter.org for tickets and information.