The composer Jerry Herman and the main character of his musical Mack & Mabel have something in common. Mack Sennett was a real person, but the similarity I’m talking about is in the fictionalized version Herman and book writer Michael Stewart created for this 1974 Broadway flop. In the new revival that kicks off the New York City Center Encores! season, Douglas Sills, as Sennett, begins the show railing against the modern changes in his art form. He spends the first ten minutes talking about how great movies were when he made them. His fondness for those bygone days, scored by Herman, conjures the memories into reality as the company turns the stage into Sennett’s studio. Herman, who recently passed away, was a proponent of the “simple, hummable show tune” (an unforgettable piece of Broadway bitchery) even as tastes changed and musical theatre moved in a more cerebral direction. What Sennett yearns for, Herman delivers. His work is a nostalgia machine, in many ways. The 2017 revival of Herman’s Hello, Dolly! thrived on that and people threw money at it, myself included. There’s nothing wrong with a trip down memory lane or a spin in a time machine. What distinguishes both Sennett and Herman, though, is that Sennett is and Herman was patently against anything but that.
In the musical, Sennett has a rivalry with the film director William Desmond Taylor (Michael Berresse, characteristically captivating). The public sees Taylor as more of an artist because he makes dramatic feature films instead of comedic shorts like Sennett does. Sennett is dismissive of Taylor’s talent, because, as Herman and I’m sure a lot of the Encores! audience would agree, art should be about entertainment. It should just make you laugh and maybe sneak a tear in there, but only the sentimental kind. Sennett tells anyone who will listen that what he’s doing is what people actually want. Even before he made the “hummable show tune” comment, Herman and Stephen Sondheim were engaged in a back-and-forth between the old guard and the new. Even though Herman was actually younger than Sondheim, his insistence on traditional forms was at odds with Sondheim’s insistence on innovation. In the years preceding Mack & Mabel, two of Sondheim’s musicals had won both Best Musical and Best Score. As Herman was writing Mack & Mabel, it’s clear that he was thinking about this. And what that acceptance speech clip shows us is that, even a decade later, Herman felt the need to claim victory over his rival, even though they were two talented, skilled writers doing completely different things in their own niche – like Sennett and Taylor.
But, goddamn, it’s undeniable that Jerry Herman could write a song. Mack & Mabel ran just shy of two months and its score was not even nominated for a Tony, but it’s got some truly breathtaking numbers, mostly for Mabel. “Look What Happened to Mabel” is as lyrically dextrous as a lot of what Sondheim’s written. “Wherever He Ain’t” is composed like it’s coming out of Mabel’s boiling blood. “Tap Your Troubles Away” is joyous pastiche brought into the more fraught present with little jabs in the lyric. “Time Heals Everything” is one of the greatest eleven o’clock numbers to ever grace the stage.
It’s Mack that kills it. The character is so rude, so uncompromising, so in love with his own voice that he’s not redeemable and the asides Stewart gives him to soften the edges don’t work. He’s not even so disgusting it’s fun. It’s just not fun. Mack is the definition of toxic masculinity. He thinks he’s better than every other person on the stage. Sills is physically imposing and is over twice the age of physically diminutive Alexandra Socha who plays Mabel, which doesn’t help the case. The real Mack and Mabel were only twelve years apart. Sills and Socha have a gap of thirty, coincidentally the same as the original stars, Robert Preston and Bernadette Peters. The age differential was considered one reason the show failed originally and it’s understandable. It’s hard to believe that Mabel is interested in Mack for any reason other than he’s powerful and she doesn’t know any better. In the age of #MeToo, this dynamic is recognizable, but not in a good way. The show never hints that Mabel is impressionable or is being swayed by these older men – Sennett and Taylor. We can’t and don’t believe that she is in love with Mack because there’s absolutely nothing to love. He’s a blowhard and he’s got antiquated ideas that favor himself. What a catch.
Socha tries to justify all of this with her performance by playing it plainly and truthfully and it does do some of the work the script isn’t doing. Socha and Sills don’t have much chemistry because he always feels like her father, but she is trying to make some spark ignite. Her performances of Mabel’s big songs are admirable for the way she really digs into the lyrics. Peters’ iconic performance on the cast recording is hard to shake, but Socha looks at the text with fresh eyes and especially the realizations in the opening of “Look What Happened to Mabel” feel like they are happening to her in the moment. I had several waves of chills pass through my body as Mabel saw herself on screen for the first time and realized that she could make a new life for herself on camera. Though her singing is lovely, Socha’s voice lacks the heft that the songs require. There aren’t guts in her vocals and something like “Time Heals Everything” needs it to come from deep inside to make its full impact.
Josh Rhodes’ production and choreography are visually beautiful. The dance springs from seemingly nowhere several times and churns up the feel-good energy of Herman’s tunes with a visual counterpart. Ken Billington’s lighting design transforms smoothly from crepuscular shadow to the bright lights of a Hollywood studio. An astonishing number of fixtures hang above and around the stage and it’s often surprising how Billington illuminates the scenes with which instruments and how those choices inform the look and feel of the various locations.
The show is constructed with a number of silent film sequences that are enacted on stage. The first occurs when Mabel enters delivering a sandwich and interrupts filming, but there are later sequences that don’t have dramatic purpose, like whole sequences with Bathing Beauties and Keystone Cops. But “dramatic purpose” is something the new musical theatre guard would say. Their purpose is spectacle alone and that’s enough. I thought about how silent film and musical theatre have a lot in common while watching these sequences. We see what are virtually silent scenes set to music whenever there’s a dance break or whenever a musical uses dance to deliver plot. Silent films are not far removed from this. I guess it makes sense, then, that Jerry Herman and Mack Sennett are also cut from the same cloth.