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Review: ‘Mack & Mabel’ balances bright music with layers of sadness and regret

Photo by Joan Marcus

If there ever was any particular show that was absolutely meant to be seen at City Center as part of its celebrated Encores! series (in which rarely-seen but noteworthy musicals, especially those with terrific scores and flawed books, receive short-run, full-orchestra, concert-style but elaborate revivals), that would be Jerry Herman’s “Mack & Mabel,” which ran only 66 performances in 1974.

For years, it was an open secret that Herman (who died on Dec. 26 at the age of 88) was resisting giving Encores! permission to perform “Mack & Mabel” because he firmly believed that the musical (which has undergone significant revisions over the years) would eventually return to Broadway. 

Two years ago, Encores! sort of dipped its toes into “Mack and Mabel” by presenting selections from it as part of the revue “Hey, Look Me Over!,” with Douglas Sills and Alexandra Socha as Mack and Mabel respectively. One year later, City Center announced that it would finally be going forward with a full Encores! staging of “Mack & Mabel,” again with Sills and Socha.

A bright musical comedy tinged with layers of sadness, regret and loss, “Mack & Mabel” depicts the turbulent relationship between the pioneering silent comedy director Mack Sennett and Flatbush waitress turned breakout Hollywood star Mabel Normand. It is narrated by Mack, who looks back on his on-and-off, two-decade relationship with Mabel (who succumbed to drug addiction and illness and died in 1930) on the eve of losing his movie studio in foreclosure.

For those such as myself who have listened to the show’s Broadway and London cast albums for years and wondered why “Mack & Mabel” does not get performed more often, the Encores! production (smoothly directed and choreographed by Josh Rhodes) provides an opportunity to finally experience its book scenes (which can be uneven, downbeat and exposition-heavy) while also basking in the thrill of a full orchestra and Broadway-caliber cast performing the magnificent score, which contains elements of better-known shows by Herman such as “Hello, Dolly!” and “Mame” (including a big production number where the cast fawns over the leading lady).

While often too over-the-top and declamatory, Sills (“The Scarlet Pimpernel”) gives an emotional and vocally rich performance. Socha (“Head Over Heels”), also with a big voice and big personality, makes for an endearing and playful Mabel. The strong cast also includes Lili Cooper (“SpongeBob SquarePants”), Michael Berresse (“A Chorus Line”) and Ben Fankhauser (“Newsies”).

As the orchestra (conducted by music director Rob Berman) nears the completion of the rousing entr’acte (which is used as an overture on the cast albums), banners of the young, middle-aged and elderly Herman materialize to great applause. “Mack & Mabel” might not, as Herman hoped, be back on Broadway (and perhaps it never will be), but it is currently back in New York and in great form.

“Mack & Mabel” runs through Sunday at City Center. 131 W. 55th St., nycitycenter.org.

3.5 stars

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