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Theatre in Review: Mabel Madness (Urban Stages)

Trezana Beverley. Photo: Tanja Hayes Photos.

About halfway through the new show at Urban Stages, the actress Trezana Beverley connects with the role of Mabel Mercer, and it is a beautiful thing to see and hear. She sings Cole Porter's "Love for Sale," an account of the travails of a streetwalker, and a song that I've always thought of as a bit of camp. But, as we have already been told, Mercer was famed for her ability to make any lyric reverberate with authenticity, and she transforms a song that should be decades past its sell-by date ("If you want to buy my wares/Follow me and climb the stairs") into something powerful and ineffably sad. Beverley does it again, with what should be an even sillier Porter number, "Down in the Depths on the 90th Floor," again working her alchemy on the lyrics ("Why, even my janitor's wife/Has a perfectly good life") to lend emotional weight to the lament of a wealthy Manhattan worldling who has been abandoned by her lover.

For decades, Mercer was the Queen Mother of the New York cabaret scene, ruling with a serene glamour that no other singer has ever matched. Even when she began to experience significant vocal trouble, her way with words kept her in demand. When performing the songs cited above, Beverley captures something of Mercer's regal bearing, behind which lurked her penetrating insight into the follies of love. Thanks to her skill at evoking these qualities, Beverley makes good company for the brief running time of Mabel Madness, a show that never completely manages to transcend the artificial nature of the biographical one-person show.

Beverley, who wrote the script, reveals that behind her warm, yet enigmatic, exterior, Mercer was a melancholy, often frightened, woman. Born in England in 1900, she lived with her grandmother, receiving only occasional visits from her mother, whom she was instructed to call Auntie Em. Mother was a music hall performer, and when she showed up it was often to take Mabel to a closed, decrepit theatre and make her recite to the empty seats, a series of experiences that left the young girl traumatized. (Ironically, these sessions helped her to develop the cut-glass diction that became her trademark.)

It wasn't until she was a schoolgirl that Mercer discovered she was the product of an interracial love affair between her white mother and a black man she never met. By then, she was living in a convent school, where the girls dressed her up as a pickaninny to serve as a mascot at sports events. Somehow, she managed to survive these scarring experiences and found work as a singer in London. From a very early age, however, she was profoundly alone. Moving to Paris, she was befriended by the legendary cabaret figure Bricktop, who came up with the idea of thwarting Mercer's crippling shyness by having her perform seated in the audience, thus setting the stage for the rest of Mercer's career.

Mercer fled Paris for New York, one step ahead of the Nazis; arguably the show's most poignant moment is her rendition of the Bart Howard-Ian Grant number, "If You Leave Paris," which gives full expression to her sadness at being made to leave the city she loved the most. In the US, she sought out her mother, who remained remarkably uninterested in her daughter's fortunes. A stay in Nassau became a years-long period of exile; because her mother wouldn't claim her as a relative, Mercer had no means of obtaining citizenship. She eventually married a gay American musician, and was happy for a time, although the love of her life proved to be her second husband, the manager Harry Beard, with whom she at last found a home. By then, she had begun her reign in New York's nightclubs, where she was sought out by singers much more famous than she. As the world knows, she even taught Frank Sinatra a thing or two, helping him achieve his renaissance in the 1950s, when his tenure as king of the bobby-soxers had run out.

The big question in shows like these is, Why is this famous person telling the story of his or her life -- and to whom? Beverley has Mercer enter and acknowledge the audience as the only family she has ever had. There is an attempt at creating suspense: Her current manager, Donald Smith, has sent a limousine for her, but won't say what it's about; Mercer is convinced that she is about to be fired, that nobody wants her style of singing anymore. ("Cabaret got old, and I got old with it.") That this isn't the case will be blindingly obvious to the Mabel Mercer fans who are the most likely audience for Mabel Madness. The story she tells is a fascinating one, but so crowded with characters and incidents that 80 minutes allows for only the most cursory treatment. She doesn't delve in any detail into her marriages or her friendships with the likes of Porter and Sinatra; she discusses the gradual loss of her voice, but in such a way that it's not entirely clear how it shaped the rest of her career. (It would also be interesting to know the relationship between her Catholicism and her career and often complicated personal life.) And while Beverley does very nicely indeed by some evergreen numbers associated with Mercer, a couple of new songs by Barry Levitt and Peter Napolitano -- "The Story is My Song" and "Mabel Madness" -- pale in comparison.

If they might have encouraged their author/star to dig deeper, the directors, Frances Hill and Napolitano, make sure that she has several moments in which to shine. The modest set -- a club chair, a steamer trunk, a potted palm, and an upstage wall with a flocked wallpaper look -- works well enough, as do Christina Watanabe's lighting and Gail Cooper-Hecht's costumes. The standout contribution is Nicholas Blade Guldner's oh-so-evocative projections of Mercer's mother, Bricktop, Paris at night, nightclub interiors, and much more.

Mabel Madness is an odd title for a show as formulaic as this one; no matter what the lady endured, she did so with uncommon grace; whatever turbulent emotions privately plagued her, she never showed them in public. Still, I fear that too many people no longer know anything about Mercer, despite her many recordings. If this show helps to reintroduce her to the world, it will have done its job. -- David Barbour

(26 February 2016)

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