Review: Mack and Mabel at New York City Center
In 1974, Mack and Mabel only had 66 performances on Broadway. The Jerry Herman score however, had yet to be experienced in its full glory for New York audiences. Until, that is, New York City Center revived the show as the first in the Encores! series for the year. And while the stunning score and fabulous cast can't hide the troubled script, it is still a treat to see.
The semi-fictionalized story of pioneer filmmaker Mack Sennett and his star Mabel Normand begins in 1911 when Mabel, bursting through a door on Mack's set, delivers a sandwich for the movie's star. Soon after, he has made her the star of all his movies and his entire production company is off to California to make it big. What follows them into the 1920s is scandal, booze, drugs, illness, sex, bankruptcy, and death. While this production is well designed and directed, the ever troubled book still can't make a perfect landing. The love story can get lost, though not for lack of trying, and its hard to believe the intentions of usually blustering Mack. But this cast has managed to find a middle ground to make it work.
Douglas Sills and Alexandra Socha, who played the titular characters at an Encores! revue called Hey, Look Me Over! in 2018 return with the same life that they brought to the characters two years ago. As Mack, Sills leads the audience through the story, jumping between past and present to reflect on his regrets. Socha's portrayal of Mabel is dynamite, proving what a star she is, with several standout moments throughout the evening including the song "Look What Happened to Mabel."
The rest of the cast is equally as good, supported by a strong and energetic ensemble. Ben Fankhauser plays the lovelorn Freddy, who Mabel probably should have ended up with, and it's wonderful to see him back on a New York stage as he sings "When Mabel Comes in the Room" absolutely beautifully. Lilli Cooper also stands out, particularly during the ultimately grim "Tap Your Troubles Away."
Supported by the always fabulous New York City Center Orchestra, the score is a delight to hear. And it's during the Entr'acte, when pictures of Herman descended from the ceiling, that the true power of this determined little show is realized. Herman admitted in his memoir that this score was his favorite. And despite the issues with the book, it may remind you that you should dust these old shows off the shelf once in a while. You never know what might be there.