by Samuel L. Leiter
Solo shows about dead celebrities brought back to life to spend an evening reminiscing about their triumphs and tragedies are part of every season. As with Mabel Madness: The Life of Mabel Mercer, those celebrities are often performing artists who get to strut their stuff while regaling us with sad or sunny biographical anecdotes littered with long-gone glitterati names that draw sighs of recognition from silver-haired ladies and gents. Sometimes there’s a dramatic reason for our host or hostess to be addressing us, and sometimes we’re expected simply to make up our own reason as to why we’re there. Mabel Madness, a by-the-numbers one-woman biomusical written by and starring Trezana Beverley, fits the latter category.
Mabel Mercer, who died at 84 in 1984, was an artist widely appreciated by the cabaret crowd. A small number of YouTube videos give you a chance to see her being interviewed or singing, but, for all the influence she’s reputed to have had on the 20th century’s greatest pop singers, most especially Frank Sinatra, her subtle, sophisticated, storytelling style, with its rolling British r’s reminiscent of Noël Coward, may now seem somewhat dated. Interestingly, Beverley admits not knowing who Mercer was as little as seven years ago.
The show is performed on Tabitha Pease’s simplified version of Mercer’s 110th Street living room, backed by patterned wallpaper on which images from Mercer’s life are projected. Unoriginally, a trunk containing the singer’s dresses serves as a crucial prop, as does an arm chair, since Mercer usually performed while sitting in one. Designer Gail Cooper-Hecht has provided the star with a simple blue pants suit; later, she dons a brocaded silk robe with a silk aqua scarf.
The script wanders more or less chronologically through Mercer’s life, interrupted every now and then by a song from her repertoire, supplemented, for some unnecessary reason, with new ones by Barry Levitt and Peter Napolitano (who codirected with Frances Hill). The classics include songs by Douglas Cross and George Cory, Bart Howard, Jerome Kern, the Gershwins, and Cole Porter. Among the best known tunes are “Summertime,” “Love for Sale,” and “Just One of Those Things.” Strangely, the script, which has several factual problems, has her singing a bit of “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man of Mine” for a 1924 audition even though it was written for 1927’s Show Boat.
Mercer speaks of both her climb up the ladder of show business success, and her personal life, including her marriage to a gay musician and her long-term affair with a married white man. The most dramatic material lies in her origins as the mulatto child of a white mother, a British music hall performer, and a black father, an American vaudeville performer she never knew. Mabel Madness wrings what it can from her relationship with a mother who insisted on being referred to as Auntie Em, not Mama, and who abandoned Mabel to be raised in a nunnery and brought up by her grandmother. Mabel became trés popular in Paris’s café society in the 1930s, creating a close relationship with the mulatto hostess, Bricktop, but, in 1938, the threat of Hitler led to her moving to America. Her supper club and recording career continued to blossom, even after she developed vocal problems. In 1983, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Ronald Reagan.
The Tony-winning Beverley (For Colored Girls . . . ) works hard to reincarnate Mercer, but her British accent is inconsistent and her charm forced (all those little chuckles must go). She also speaks, not very believably, in the multi-accented voices of other people. Unfortunately, her singing, unlike Mercer’s, is not always on pitch, and her attempts to capture Mercer’s famed “story song” style of mining her lyrics for their nuances are little more than respectable imitations. But no greater indication of her overreach is visible than when she sings “Just One of Those Things” as a duet for Mercer and Sinatra, switching styles as she goes. This misguided moment is, indeed, Mabel madness.
259 West 30th Street, NYC
Through March 20
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).