Past Reviews

Off Broadway Reviews

Mack & Mabel

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - February 20, 2020

Alexandra Socha and Douglas Sills
Photo by Joan Marcus
After last year's wobbly season marked by three meh productions, Encores! at New York City Center is back on top, doing what it does best with a beautifully rendered Mack & Mabel, Jerry Herman's 1974 foray into darkness that delves into the turbulent relationship between movie-maker Mack Sennett and actress Mabel Normand.

Herman, best known for his uplifting, popular, and frequently revived musicals, hit a rare brick wall with this one. Mack & Mabel ran for 66 performances in its only Broadway run and has never been thought of as a lost gem by fans of Hello, Dolly!, Mame, and La Cage aux Folles. What has kept interest alive is the original cast recording with Robert Preston as Mack and Bernadette Peters as Mabel.

We got a taste of what to expect a couple of years ago, when Encores! put together a revue of excerpts from shows they had never gotten around to. The high point was a couple of numbers from Mack & Mabel performed by Douglas Sills and Alexandra Socha in the title roles. They did such a good job that their contribution to the evening felt like a preview of coming attractions.

And now it has come to fruition. Both are on hand to lead this well-staged production that boasts of a truckload of terrific performers, among them Tony nominees Lilli Cooper (Tootsie) and Michael Berresse (the Marin Mazzie/Brian Stokes Mitchell Kiss Me, Kate revival), with Major Attaway (Aladdin) doing splendidly in the role of Fatty Arbuckle.

The booming-voiced Sills is quite good as Mack, a man whose entire life revolves around making silent two-reeler slapstick comedies ("I Wanna Make the World Laugh" is one of his big numbers). He has no time or interest in personal entanglements until the bubbly, bouncy Mabel bursts into his life. They quickly form a successful working relationship, which turns into a far less successful personal one, between a man who is unable to express his love and a woman who is unable to believe that she deserves better, even when she becomes a bona fide Hollywood star.

As good as Sills is, however, it is Alexandra Socha (Head Over Heels) who steals the show. The Act II opening tribute number, "When Mabel Comes in the Room," is a fitting way to describe Ms. Socha's contribution to the evening. She lights up the stage from the very moment she bursts in, interrupting a film shoot while delivering a knockwurst sandwich from the deli where she works and shortly thereafter breaking out into "Look What Happened to Mabel." She does a bang-up job, as well, singing one of the show's breakout successes, "Time Heals Everything." That song, along with Mack's "I Won't Send Roses," are decidedly top-drawer Herman, even if the show as a whole remains problematic. The second act, featuring a Wild Party-like sequence revolving around a frenetic tap number choreographed by the production's director Josh Rhodes, is disturbing. And the decidedly downbeat ending, which has been reworked a couple of times over the years, remains a sad denouement to a sad story.

Mack & Mabel will never be a great audience pleaser, but for anyone excited to see Encores! fully discharging its mission of producing revivals of rarely performed Broadway shows, this is a must-see. The icing on the cake is the contribution by the terrific orchestra, directed by Rob Berman and featuring Philip J. Lang's original orchestrations, as restored by Josh Clayton and Larry Moore. The evening is being presented as a tribute to Jerry Herman, who passed away in December, and everyone seems to put their best efforts to make sure the honor is a fitting one.

Mack & Mabel
Through February 23, 2020
Encores! at City Center, West 55th Street, between 6th and 7th Avenues
Tickets online and current performance schedule: