By Sarah Downs
I wish I could send everyone to Jerry Herman’s Mack and Mabel at City Center, but the Encores! Series performance schedule is woefully brief. I was privileged to see this delightful show on Saturday. You can always depend on Jerry Herman for classic musical theater with lots of heart and lots of pizzazz. From the romantic “I Won’t Send Roses” to the heartbreaking “Time Heals Everything” to the pizzazz of “Tap Your Troubles Away,” Mack and Mabel stays true to his code. This is perhaps Herman’s richest score, with lush arrangements given their full due by Musical Director Rob Berman and the excellent Encores! Orchestra. They played the overture as an entr’acte. As three portraits of Jerry Herman descended from the fly loft the audience gasped audibly. It was a perfect tribute to the redoubtable composer.
The musical follows the stormy relationship of silent film director Mack Sennett (Douglas Sills) and actress Mabel Normand, (Alexandra Socha) whom Sennett made a star. The show traces Normand’s star in the ascendant to the moment she moved on from Sennett’s studio to work with William Desmond Taylor (a deliciously wily Michael Berresse) and subsequent decline. Normand fell victim to cocaine addiction and died quite young of tuberculosis. In framing the narrative in flashback, Mack and Mabel also examines what might have been.
From the second Douglas Sills roars onto the stage at the top of the show, you know you are in for something extra. Tall, handsome, with a shock of silver hair, Sills grabs hold of the audience and doesn’t let it go until final curtain. He is matched in intensity and versatility by slim but mighty Alexandra Socha. They head an excellent cast, including a sweetly boisterous Major Attaway as Fatty Arbuckle and Lili Cooper as Sennett film star and heart of the studio Lottie Ames. In just a handful of scenes Attaway captures the delicacy behind Arbuckle’s slapstick. Cooper, with powerful belt voice and warm smile effectively conveys both actress and stalwart ally.
Director and Choreographer Josh Rhodes clearly ‘gets’ musical theater. It’s fun, it’s colorful, it’s shamelessly romantic. Rhodes directs the actors with energy and purpose, including a delightfully madcap number about filming those famous two-reelers. He keeps the chaos down to a dull roar. The ensemble reflect his enthusiasm, singing and dancing with panache. As the rousing group number “Big Time” built to the big finish, stacking harmony on harmony, I literally felt my heart swell with the music. It’s so satisfying to hear the full range from bass to soprano.
Herman had a gift for musical hyperbole (let’s not do just one key change, let’s do three!) but he wields it with some restraint here. One issue the show has had historically is that the music was written for a prior incarnation, with a much more lighthearted book. Thus, the flavor of Herman’s lighter tunes don’t always cohere with this darker libretto by Michael Stewart. It didn’t particularly bother me.
In the end, this is Socha’s and Sills’ show. You never tire of them. Socha gives Mabel Normand the life she should have had. She’s funny, she has a terrific voice, and looks gorgeous in Amy Clark’s period costumes. Sills makes Mack Sennett a force to be reckoned with – and indeed must have been. At show’s end, after all the glitter and drama, Sills stands alone on a bare stage in the spotlight, while silent film of Mabel flickers on the backdrop behind him. He is exhausted and she is gone, but their films live on.
Mack and Mabel, book by Michael Stewart, music and lyrics by Jerry Herman; revised version by Francine Pascal, based on an idea by Leonard Spigelgass. Directed and Choreographed by Josh Rhodes, and featuring The Encores! Orchestra; Music Director Rob Berman.
Starring Major Attaway, Michael Berresse, Lilli Cooper, Ben Fankhauser, Jordan Gelber, Evan Kasprzak, Raymond J. Lee, Kevin Ligon, Janet Noh, Allen Lewis Rickman, Douglas Sills, and Alexandra Socha; with Alex Julian Aquilino, Matt Bauman, Maria Briggs, Julian R. Decker, Sara Esty, Paige Faure, Haley Fish, Leslie Donna Flesner, Garett Hawe, Leah Horowitz, Matt Moisey, Madison Stratton, Diana Vaden, Jacob Keith Watson, Kristen Beth Williams, Darius Wright, Joy Woods, and Richard Riaz Yoder.