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