Review: Encores! MACK & MABEL Boasts Jerry Herman's Best Score and Terrific Turns By Alexandra Socha, Douglas Sills

By: Feb. 23, 2020
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Count this reviewer among those who, contrary to conventional musical theatre wisdom, never thought there was anything horribly wrong with Michael Stewart's original book for MACK & MABEL, the big, splashy 1974 musical about silent movie director Mack Sennett and the star he discovered, Mabel Normand.

Mack and Mabel
Alexandra Socha and Douglas Sills
(Photo: Joan Marcus)

But with the positively gorgeous score by Jerry Herman (the abundantly tuneful and insightful, character-driven collection of songs is considered by many to be his best) and the star power provided by leading man Robert Preston, emerging legend Bernadette Peters and beloved Broadway vet Lisa Kirk, history has pretty much laid the blame for the original production's quick demise on the book's inability to get audiences involved with the musical's tragic romance; essentially another version troubled male artist and the woman who sings a great torch song about him scenario.

Not that this fictionalized version of the true-life story is an easy sell. Sennett, portrayed in the musical as a bullying perfectionist, was regarded 100 years ago as the king of movie comedies, with his Keystone Studios creating hundreds of short features that introduced such antics as pie fights, car chases, the knockabout adventures of his bumbling Keystone Kops and the silly flirtations of the Sennett Bathing Beauties.

His films featured luminaries such as Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Fatty Arbuckle, W.C. Fields and one of film's first women comedy stars, Mabel Normand. Their off-screen romance is depicted in the musical as one where she accepts his bottled-up emotions and disrespectful behavior, admiring his artistry and appreciating the national stardom she's achieved under his tutelage. The story is narrated by Sennett in flashback, after the Depression has driven him to bankruptcy, with his commentary expressing remorse for the way he treated the woman whose career plummeted because of her alleged cocaine addiction and suspected involvement with the murder of film director William Desmond Taylor. (Both are regarded as false today.)

But the show's original Broadway cast album reveals such an exceptional score (amazingly not Tony nominated) that the desire to fix MACK & MABEL has been a decades long quest. After Stewart's passing in 1987, his sister Francine Pascal (who collaborated with him on the book for GEORGE M! but is widely famous for penning the "Sweet Valley High" book series) took over for a West End production. It's her revision of the book, which adds some backstory for Mack's obsessive behavior, pinpoints reasons for Mabel's addiction and provides a warm, sentimental ending that seems organic to the storytelling, that's used for the City Center Encores! crisply staged and beautifully acted and sung concert production.

An accomplished character leading man with a comic edge, Douglas Sills attacks the difficult role of Mack with abandon, not shying away from the character's verbally abusive side that takes over whenever he feels like his drive to produce great comedy is being compromised. His opening anthem, Herman's hard-driving "Movies Were Movies" is sung with searing pride for what he's accomplished in his career, but he's at his best during softer moments, such as the exquisite ballad, "I Won't Send Roses", a melancholy admission of his self-centered nature, and a second act scene where he admonishes himself for not expressing appreciation for the woman he loves.

Alexandra Socha, who floored the Encores! audience with her dynamic performance in PAINT YOUR WAGON and was great fun on Broadway HEAD OVER HEELS, gives a full out star turn as Mabel, mastering the tricky business of performing slapstick comedy, joyfully belting out the bubbly "Look What Happened To Mabel" (the character's reaction to seeing herself on the screen for the first time) and offering a heart-crushing rendition of Herman's most ravishing torcher, "Time Heals Everything."

Mack and Mabel
Lilli Cooper and Company (Photo: Joan Marcus)

The talented Lilli Cooper makes the most of her wisecracking sidekick role as ex-vaudevillian Lottie, whose big moment comes leading the company in a second act tap dance, and song and dance man Michael Berresse adds pizzazz in his elegant portrayal of Taylor.

Director/choreographer Josh Rhodes does fine work balancing the dark drama with cheery musical moments, especially when a chorus of showgirls hit the beach before Mack's cameras in "Hundreds Of Girls."

The brilliant Philip J. Lang's lavish orchestrations, bursting with showbiz panache, are superbly played by Rob Berman's 28-piece orchestra, and to hear the show's entr'acte (placed in the overture position on the Broadway cast album) played live by such artists is a golden moment that outshines any reservations about MACK & MABEL's imperfections.


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