Even the soberest of theater-goer can surrender all hope, for there is no resisting the wildly addictive music and lyrics of Mack & Mabel, the 1974 Broadway also-ran, featuring a tough dose of booze and pills, that launches the 2020 New York City Center’s Encores! series. Jerry Herman’s inspired score, injected with sparkly classics and lesser known gems alike, is here in glorious health, courtesy of a full-throated company of 30, backed by a 28-piece on stage orchestra.
The book though, by Michael Stewart, is sometimes as troubled as its characters. It is based on the real-life, doomed relationship between Hollywood director Mack Sennett (Douglas Sills) and Mabel Normand (Alexandra Socha), the actress who would become his leading lady and part time object of desire. Indeed, the ampersand of the show’s title is a bit misleading. Mack and Mabel are not so much a fully evolved romantic couple as they are two steadfast individualists who benefit from each other, until they don’t.
Under the stalwart direction of Josh Rhodes, and covering the years 1911 to 1930, the work is staged as a kind of memory play with Mack occasionally stepping out of the action to express his general self-hatred and acknowledge his mistakes of the heart. Sills is in full anti-hero leading man mode with his booming voice and debonnaire style intensifying Mack’s tragic need for commercial success at all costs. Socha, meanwhile, is enchanting in her A Star Is Born transformation from an unknown who likes a good sarsaparilla to a movie star heroine with a taste for heroin. Alas, the need for a happy ending denies both characters a fitting finale.
Among the many musical highlights of the first act, there is one of Herman’s catchiest comic pieces, “Look What Happened to Mabel,” which announces the actress’s rise from her lowly waitress status (“Miss B.L.T. down is the toast of the town.”), and the foreboding “I Won’t Send Roses” where Mack advises his would-be wife, “Forget my shoulder when you’re in need.”
A delightful entr’acte, under the baton of Rob Berman, transforms into a loving memory of Herman with photos of the late composer dropping down from the fly loft. Then comes “When Mabel Comes in the Room,” a number that so wants to emulate Hello Dolly’s title song that it’s downright touching. But the night’s most delicious sequence is also its darkest, a one-two punch deep in the second act showcasing two Herman songs with optimistic facades that shatter under the reality of fatal attractions. First, Socha stops the show with a heartbreaking “Time Heals Everything,” at a point where it is clear that time will heal nothing. Then, right on its heels, comes “Tap Your Troubles Away,” pretending to be a joyful full-company dance number (led with vigor by Lilli Cooper), but interrupted with bloodshed.
Rounding out the primary cast, several supporting actors give it their best shot, despite being denied songs or much of a storyline. These include Ben Fankhauser as Frank, the guy Mabel should have loved, Michael Berresse as William Desmond Taylor, the man who steals Mabel away, and Major Attaway as Fatty Arbuckle. Fatty is portrayed as a jiggly sweetheart, but it’s a tough buy-in that ignores his 1921 murder scandal. Tributes to Sennett’s cinematic contributions, a pie fight and an extended Keystone Kops sequence, are well choreographed but just shy of hitting the proper comic timing, given the production’s brief rehearsal period.
(Photo by Joan Marcus)
"The Encores! production of Jerry Herman’s Mack & Mabel was announced months before the composer died, in late December, at 88. It wasn’t planned as a tribute, but it makes a proper homage nonetheless. Not because this showbiz show, which opened on Wednesday night at New York City Center, is one of his greatest works or biggest hits — like Hello, Dolly!, Mame or La Cage Aux Folles — but precisely because it isn’t. Even a famous artist’s life, for all its grand successes, is made up too of the also-rans, the hatchlings that never flourish in the world. Mack & Mabel, whose only Broadway outing lasted all of 66 performances in 1974, is one of those, and this revival doesn’t fix that, can’t magic away Michael Stewart’s troubled book. Herman’s score, though, has such an embracing loveliness that it trails you right out the door post-show, its romance buoying you like a gentle tide through the Midtown streets. That graceful hummability, in songs like “I Won’t Send Roses” and “Time Heals Everything,” is the reason people have kept hoping for some way to make Mack & Mabel work."
Laura Collins-Hughes for New York Times