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Mack & Mabel: Great Songs, Great Stars, Weird Show

Alexandra Socha and Douglas Sills star in Jerry Herman's Broadway flop at New York City Center.

Alexandra Socha and Douglas Sills as Mabel and Mack in Mack & Mabel at New York City Center.
(© Joan Marcus)

I'm so glad I finally got to see Mack & Mabel. I'm equally glad I'll probably never have to see it again. This Jerry Herman-Michael Stewart flop from 1974 isn't a bad musical, per se — I've seen far worse shows — but it's a work filled with missed opportunities. Even the greatest songs in the world, and there are some truly wonderful Herman tunes in Mack & Mabel, can't save a piece that lies there like a lump from start to finish.

But that makes Mack & Mabel the quintessential Encores! show, and New York City Center has done it up to the hilt. Rob Berman's 28-piece orchestra has never sounded better. The stars, Douglas Sills (Mack) and Alexandra Socha (Mabel), are terrific. Michael Berresse scales a staircase with the same exhilaration as he did when he climbed up the wall in Kiss Me, Kate 20 years ago. The ensemble taps up a storm. It is a very credible, often frustrating, occasionally magnificent production of a show that every theater fan knows by name, but few have seen.

Stewart's book (revised here by his sister, Sweet Valley High author Francine Pascal) follows the doomed (and highly fictionalized) romance between real-life silent film director Mack Sennett and his early muse, actress Mabel Normand, whom he transforms from waitress to renowned movie star. As both of their careers take off at the dawn of the silver screen, and despite a bourgeoning romance with Mabel, Mack becomes absorbed with the idea of making highly commercial gag comedies, complete with pies in the face and his bumbling Keystone Kops. Mabel, on the other hand, follows promiscuous rival director William Desmond Taylor (Berresse), who gives her both the opportunity to branch out into more dramatic roles and ruins her life with booze, heroin, and murder.

Alexandra Socha stars as Mabel in Mack & Mabel.
(© Joan Marcus)

It's said that audiences in the 1970s weren't ready for a tragic musical comedy featuring two antiheroes, but my problem is how lopsided it is. The show isn't so much Mack & Mabel as it is just Mack — he's the narrator, teller of the story, receiver of the final bow, singer of the beloved standard "I Won't Send Roses." Mabel disappears for huge swaths of her own story, particularly during her descent into drug and alcohol abuse, and the themes of the few songs she sings are all the same. She has no agency, and Pascal's revisions haven't changed that.

Sills and Socha are very good. He's a perfect glowering blowhard; she is a magnetic showstopper on more than one occasion. "Look What Happened to Mabel" is a tremendous number in the first act, while the torchy "Time Heals Everything" is delivered with beautiful vulnerability. Both try hard to fill in the blanks, but there's only so much they can do when the material just doesn't behave in their favor. Berresse shines as the lascivious, bisexual Taylor in a devilish red suit (the period costumes are by Amy Clark). Lilli Cooper makes the most out of the supporting role Lottie Ames, a character who has a big second-act number but doesn't really do much else.

Director and choreographer Josh Rhodes has staged a production that is often as messy as the book. Huge moments of low comedy don't resonate, and the book scenes are static and unmoving. I did like his choreography. Honestly, it's hard to hate a thrilling tap number called "Tap Your Troubles Away" that tells a chillingly bleak story of sex, drugs, and murder.

And yeah, I was openly, unabashedly gleeful when the orchestra struck up the amazing entr'acte, which paid sweet tribute to its master songwriter, who died last year. I was equally cheerful during the big "Hello, Dolly!"-style number "When Mabel Comes in the Room" in the second act. Such great songs, such great stars, such a weird show.

The company of Mack & Mabel, presented by New York City Center Encores!
(© Joan Marcus)