“MABEL MADNESS—THE LIFE OFMABEL MERCER” Review - Celebrating the Queen of Cabaret

Back in the 70s, when we were Bridge and Tunnel people, my husband and I trekked in from the suburbs to watch Mabel Mercer deliver her magic. She was a grandmotherly figure, in modest evening clothes, sitting upright in an armchair, hands folded on her lap.  Her complexion was light brown and there was a British clip to the voice which embraced the lyrics she sang.

 

Trezana Beverley

Miss Mercer, called “the Queen of Cabaret,” had sung long engagements at the swankiest supper clubs—the Carlyle, the Ruban Bleu—and before that in Bricktop’s in Paris where her fans included Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Prince of Wales.  Now she had her own room, the Byline Club, where an audience of mostly young people like us hovered around her, listening for our very lives as she sang her stories.  Her admirers also included Tony Bennett, Barbara Cook, Nat “King” Cole and other beginners who listened and learned.  “Everything I know about phrasing,” Frank Sinatra declared, “I learned from Mabel Mercer.”

 

Her choice of songs was fastidious, and her style drew you in but the voice was dry and the notes more than a bit wobbly.  “Age,” I thought (Mabel was in her seventies).  But that was a mistake. 

 

Here’s what Cole Porter uncharitably said: “God! The woman couldn’t sing when she was young and she can’t sing now that she’s old.”  Mabel died in 1984 and her original and reissued album of “Mabel Mercer Sings Cole Porter” are collector’s items and still selling to us ordinary listeners.  In 1983 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian medal that the U.S. has to offer. When she went to England, they gave her five nights on the BBC.

  

Trezana Beverley

Now she is back, off-Broadway, at Urban Stages (259 W. 30th St.—through March 20th)—in Mabel Madness--a one-woman show that feels like a full cast on stage.  It is a play with music rather than a “musical.”  Trezana Beverley, the playwright and performer, takes the role of Mabel as a true labor of love and keen perception. She sings a number of Mabel’s most beloved songs as she portrays the high and low points of Mabel’s extraordinary life.  Evocative filmed backgrounds (by Nicholas Blade Guldner) move us through the 20th century and back and forth across the Atlantic ocean.  The light-handed direction is by Frances Hill and Peter Napolitano.

 

 

The child of a white mother on the Brit vaudeville circuit and a black jazz musician, Mabel was brought up in England by her maternal grandmother, never knowing she was mulatto until she was sent to a Catholic convent school and assigned to dance a jig in blackface.  When Ms. Beverley becomes the grandmother, the mother and a plain-speaking nun, Mabel takes shape as the all-but-present recipient of love, regret and humiliation. For me, the most poignant scene was Mabel’s mother keeping distance because of the inconvenience and the implied disgrace of acknowledging a mixed-race child.  This is England in the early twentieth century. 

 

Trezana Beverley

 

Mabel isn’t pushy but she is determined.  She hasn’t much of a voice but she has that something and also the support of her strong Catholic faith.  A bit like Piaf, only with decorum and a still upper lip, she makes good.  After singing and dancing in London, she slips over to Paris where she is buddies with the legendary Bricktop, and a Montmartre regular, sharing toasts with Josephine Baker.  When World War II threatens, it is Marlene Dietrich who persuades her to leave for the States and pays both their passages on the Queen Mary.

 

The men in her life are either enacted or imagined but in either case, I see them in memory as present on the stage. 

 

Writer, actor Trezana Beverley, won a Tony as the Lady in Red in the Broadway production of Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf.  She is a woman-of-the-theater and is currently on the directing drama faculty of the Juilliard School in New York City.  Mabel Mercer has been on her mind for many years and in active creation for five, counting Intensive research to tell a true story and to give her Mabel pluck and dignity despite the heartbreak of her mother’s rejection

 

Trezana Beverley

This is no blockbuster but it’s a solid and moving theater-piece, surely a must-see for Mabel Mercer devotees and general fans of cabaret.  It must be a challenge for Ms. Beverley to sing as a singer with a failing voice, but she was well supported by the sensitive offstage piano accompaniment by the music director, Tuffus Zimbabwe. At the preview performance we attended, Ms. Beverley sang, among others, Summertime, Love for Sale, Down in the Depths (on the 90th Floor) and Just One of Those Things—as well as two original (and very Mabel) songs by Barry Levitt and Peter Napolitano. And she got a standing ovation.

 

Performances Monday, Wednesday and Thursday at 7pm, Friday and Saturday at 8pm. Matinees Saturday and Sunday at 3pm. For information, visit Urban Stages or call 212 -421-1380. Tickets are $40, and can be purchased online or by calling 1-896-811-4111.

 

Photos: Courteay of Urban Stages/Mabel Madness

      

 

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