Review: ‘Mack & Mabel,’ reunited, at City Center

Reviews · Theater

Many regular attendees of New York City Center Encores! have been waiting – possibly since the series’ 1994 inception – for Mack & Mabel, a 1974 Broadway flop (it closed after 66 performances) that boasts one of Jerry Herman‘s strongest, most compelling and beloved scores. The invaluable series’ primary mission is to bring back musicals with worthy or overlooked scores, heard in their original orchestrations, even when (as often happens) that score has been the one saving grace of a floundering production.

Mack & Mabel‘s score has been treasured and championed for decades, but the show has always been considered one of those “great score, lousy book” musicals. Michael Stewart’s original book – mostly written after Herman had already shaped his score working with a previous, unsatisfactory writer –  was revised along the way by Francine Pascal, and it’s her version that Encores! presented last week.

My introduction to the musical was a terrific recording of a 1995 London production (starring Howard McGillin and Caroline O’Connor) that I couldn’t stop listening to. The show came across vividly and thrillingly through Herman’s songs – which varied from catchy silent film era pastiche tunes to witty character studies to aching, heartfelt ballads. His lyrics contributed equally with the varied melodies, and since most of the songs were performed by the two leads, they came across as full-bodied characters.

Casting is crucial for these two roles –  the celebrated and innovative silent film director Mack Sennett and the diminutive charming actress whom he discovered and molded into a star. Robert Preston and Bernadette Peters led the 1974 cast – tough acts to follow, clearly.

alexandra socha

The Encores! production, directed and choreographed by Josh Rhodes, was blessed with very strong inheritors of these roles. Douglas Sills as Sennett was rakish, blustering and charismatic. Alexandra Socha persuasively grew from an intimidated Brooklyn deli delivery girl into a confidant actress and woman who tried hard to get and keep her man. Both performed their bounty of memorable songs with individual flair and a sense of a fully-developed character.

There was terrific vocal talent surrounding them as well. One of the most beautiful moments came when Ben Fankhauser, in the featured role of an often-forlorn screenwriter, led off “When Mabel Comes into the Room,” which builds to a rousing ‘welcome-back’ ensemble number when Normand returns to Sennett’s studio in the second act, after they’d reached an impasse and she’d been wooed away by an up-and-coming younger director. The song is a shameless imitation of Hello Dolly‘s title song – the huge hit created ten years earlier by the Mack & Mabel team – but before it built to its somewhat forced and overblown conclusion, those opening verses were hauntingly lovely.

It would be great to report that the book’s now-legendary failings were not so insurmountable, but the score definitely carried the show last week, as the non-musical scenes often felt disjointed and abrupt. The device of having Sennett narrate from time to time (setting the scene, noting what year it was) came across awkwardly, and the introductory 1938 scene that sets up the rest of the show as a flashback didn’t feel dramatically justified – although it does make possible “Movies were Movies,” the sensational and catchy opening number that establishes Sennett’s character.

major attaway & cast

The Encores! Orchestra led by Rob Berman sounded terrific throughout, particularly in the vibrant entr’acte. They gave full play to the score’s range – from the sultry, bluesy “Time Heals Everything” (given a knockout performance by Socha) to the zany merriment of the large ensemble numbers that re-create Sennett’s signature silent- movie antics.

This Encores production had large moving set pieces on a scale unusually elaborate for this series. Josh Rhodes’ choreography and direction had energy but not the singular vision he showcased in his production of Grand Hotel, a recent Encores! highlight. He did create a powerful sense of menace and  decadence in “Tap Your Troubles Away,” a fiercely ironic number that blends tapping chorines with a murder.  As the sleazy director who lures Mabel, Michael Barresse, 20 years after his memorably deft and dynamic turn in Kiss Me Kate, demonstrated that he still has a distinctive way of moving that rivets the eye.

barresse & cast

Susan Reiter covers dance for TDF Stages and contributes regularly to the Los Angeles Times, Playbill, Dance Australia and other publications.

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Review: Blue13 Dance Company hits home run at The Wallis 2

Dance · Reviews
Blue13 Dance Company “Diya aurToofan” photo credit: Kevin Parry for The Wallis

Last night’s boffo showcase by the 15-year-old Blue13 Dance Company brought great pleasure, including a former secret now in plain sight thanks to presentation by The Wallis: the presence of a real choreographer in our midst. Achinta McDaniel, American-born of Indian descent, along with her handsome dance troupe, displayed the right stuff in Friday’s fulsome dance program in Beverly Hills. It’s the kind of melding of ideas and entertainment that can return dance to the mainstream of cultural and political expression — a space the art form long occupied, but in recent decades dance has stumbled.

For reasons mostly economic but also due to a dearth of talent, the American dance landscape is the bastion of the ‘repertory’-company model, where disparate works are curated from choreographer guns-for-hire. Blue13, last night, was the exception. Here was 90 minutes of the real deal: a rich evening of variegated works created by a single artist. And it was something to behold. The voice is female, it is strong, it is wildly theatrical, and it has dance bursting at every seam. McDaniel, previously championed in Los Angeles by the Ford Amphitheatre and a guest instructor at the USC Kaufman School of Dance, came through for The Wallis with the type of high-impact, high-quality dance concert that has my heart.

achinta mcdaniel, choreographer

The engine behind McDaniel’s forceful grasp on movement, and the source of her obvious passion for it, is her grounding in the Indian dance form, kathak, and her expanding that classical form into realms of pop, commercial, and modern-dance. Similar to the great jazz choreographer, Jack Cole (1911 – 1974), McDaniel steeps her work in wide-legged, ground-hugging, foot-stomping, body-syncopated, armwork-precise, infectiously rhythmic Indian dance. Working from that base, she erupts easily into fillips like head squiggles, torso shimmies, and leg flicks. She is a most fluid, and fluent, inventor, dotting her dance message with embellishments like a fine orator. She is unafraid to employ metaphor and narrative. She fluctuates her tempi, modulates her dynamics; at times she screams dance; at others her dance speaks sotto voce. Sometimes, she just tells it straight like a brave artist.

The program opened in silence and smoke, with “How to/not be Adequately Indian,” a modern-dance work to electro-trance music, performed before a backdrop first a purple band then a pink one. A motif of dancers holding the fabric of their costumes beautifully integrated dance with costume. (That was the case the entire evening. A simple touch had dancers moving with hands tucked in pockets.) The wide-reaching program then moved to “Diya au Toofan,” a raucous throwdown of randy Bollywood boogieing in bright oranges and purples.

(L-R) Joy Veluz, Omar Candedo, Ali Carreras, Jackie Buckmaster-Wright in “Terpsichore in Ghungroos,” by Artistic Director/choreographer Achinta McDaniel photo credit: Kevin Parry

The evening’s main event was its politically charged world premiere, Terpsichore in Ghungroos, a three-chaptered escapade (but I counted four?) and a cri de couer of a modern multicultural woman. In a clear evocation of colonial India, McDaniel made brilliant use of a dance-friendly prop — the undergarment that literally gave 19th century women of a certain social class their form, the hoop skirt, with its overlying petticoat. This hidden feminine gear, outed by McDaniel, the choreographer explored with finesse, as the hoops dropped from overhead like nasty little white cages. Then they appeared as sketches on an artful backdrop; then the dancers wore them; then they toyed skillfully with the white petticoats, tossing them around.

Blue13 Dance Company, “Terpsichore in ” Jackie Buckmaster-Wright, Jainil Mehta. photo: Kevin Parry

In a strong ending, the dancers, their brown-spotted unitards echoing their brown skin, cowered in subservient positions to the ‘mastering’ skirt hoops. The work needs tightening (the bit in sweatpants feels redundant although its use of lifts was interesting), but, hey, put it on the road! Bringing the work alive was fantastic original music from the pit: Enrique Lara on percussion, Alma Cielo on violin and sarangi, and Paul Livingstone on upright bass and goobgoobi.

Pictured: Adrianna Vieux. Photo: Kevin Parry

Backdrops, even some looking low budget, indicate consideration for presentation and stagecraft. Costumes added color and shape. I adore the blousy over-smocks in muted blue for the Blue13 ladies, matched by tunics and wide-girth trousers for men. Fabulous drummers popped onstage and off, upping the energy. What dancer could not kill him or herself with this thumping noise nearby? Wonderful dancers, a tribe of them! The level of preparedness was exceptional. McDaniel has gathered a group of women who range in their ability to catch the “hit-it” nature of her shapely port de bras. But it was the cadre of men who rocked my world to Mumbai and back. They anchor the program. Hang onto them!

As a Cole aficionado, I enjoyed the ankle bells and while I get the addiction to that sound, perhaps not in every piece? Similar to Cole, whose weakness was finishing his works, McDaniel needs stronger endings (her premiere excepted from this critique). She needs to tighten; who doesn’t?

The volume of pure dance — joyous, raucous — was off the charts, if that’s what you like, and I do, then go. McDaniel and Blue13 are putting the dance back into dance.

Blue13 Dance Company | The Wallis | Feb 21-22

arts·meme founder/dance critic Debra Levine authored this review.

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