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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at New York City Center


  Alexandra Socha, Douglas Sills and company/ Ph: Joan Marcus

Whatever magic the folks involved in the Encores! production of Mack & Mabel have stashed away in their bag of theatrical tricks, I hope they have a patent. This knockout, knock-about revival of Jerry Herman’s 1974 flop has more fizz than Pellegrino and more pop than Rice Krispies. And in the process of making a strong case for an unloved musical, the show certifies Alexandra Socha, playing the distaff side of the title, as a first-magnitude musical-comedy star. She’s a pip.
Herman, who died this past December, had a dry spell following his two monster hits from the mid-1960s, Hello, Dolly! and Mame. Dear World ran just 132 performances in 1969, and Mack & Mabel only half that number five years later. By 1974, Hair and Company had begun reshaping the Broadway musical to reflect dystopic times. That must have been challenging to a self-professed tunesmith of the old order like Herman.
Perhaps that’s what attracted him to the story of filmmaker Mack Sennett, king of the two-reel silent film comedy, and his female star, Mabel Normand. The show opens in Hollywood, 1938, as Sennett (Douglas Sills) returns late at night to what had been his studio. Regretful and angry, he speaks about the merits of silent film but oddly turns course in his opening number, “Movies Were Movies,” singing wistfully about those olden days when it was all for laughs and “no one pretended that what we were doing was art.”
We’re then whisked back to 1911, when the business was centered in New York. Sennett’s Brooklyn-based comic troupe includes Fatty Arbuckle (Major Attaway, rotund and quivery as a sack of jelly), Lottie Ames (Lilli Cooper, topping her recent performance as the beleaguered girlfriend in Tootsie) and an unseen Charlie Chaplin. While filming a scene with Lottie, Mabel enters, having been dispatched from a nearby deli to deliver lunch and collect the 15 cents due. Silliness ensues, the camera keeps rolling, and a star is born when the rough-hewn, all-business Sennett convinces Mabel to join up.
Romance ensues as well, despite Mack’s warning that “I Won’t Send Roses,” remember her birthday, or offer any other gentlemanly niceties she might expect. It’s an uncharacteristic Herman ballad, and quite lovely (Michael Feinstein sang it at the recent memorial celebration of the composer/lyricist’s life), and I’d happily report that Sills delivered it with the pathos it deserves. He has the bluster but not the gruff charm that the character demands (Robert Preston starred in the original production), and his pitch was wobbly on opening night.
Still, there’s chemistry not only between Sills and the gamine songbird that is Socha (who’s not at all reminiscent of her forebear in the role, Bernadette Peters), but between Mabel and the entire company. And so when Herman reverts to form with “When Mabel Comes in the Room” – which recapitulates themes and motifs from the title songs of both Dolly and Mame – we’re as enchanted as the denizens of the stage (just as she already has done with the sprightly “Wherever He Ain’t”).
By 1930, Mabel Dormand was dead – official cause, tuberculosis – and Sennett was on his way to irrelevance. Mack and Mabel is a downer of a story, as time and technology pass Sennett by and Mabel succumbs to drugs and the siren call of talkies. (The actual, muddled history was fictionalized for the show by book writer Michael Stewart; it’s further revised here by Stewart’s sister, Francine Pascal.)   
The critics were tough on Mack & Mabel. Particularly savage was Walter Kerr: “I have rarely seen so much talent so dispirited as the creative souls peering through the gloom at the Majestic,” he began his New York Times notice. It went downhill from there.
Nevertheless, the score would come to be recognized as one of Herman’s best, and if this Encores! production doesn’t quite make the case for moving to Broadway for another try, no one is likely to call it dispiriting. Director/choreographer Josh Rhodes has colluded with an ingenious design team (rudimentary but stylish sets by Allen Moyer, eye-grabbing costumes by Amy Clark and fine lighting by Ken Billington) to accentuate the positive with several terrific dance numbers and an altogether apt spotlight on their star.
Music director Rob Berman also appears to have gotten the memo. For whatever its shortcomings (no one will pretend that it’s art), this Mack & Mabel is a charmer.


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