By: Paulanne Simmons
English-born cabaret singer Mabel Mercer had become the toast of Paris in the 1930s, where the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Cole Porter heard her at venues such as the famed Chez Bricktop. But it was after her arrival in the United States during World War II that she became the inspiration for many of America’s greatest pop singers: Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Billie Holiday.
In Mabel Madness, now at Urban Stages, Tony award-winner Trezana Beverley (For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide /When the Rainbow Is Enuf) tells the story of Mercer’s life in words and music. The show, which is co-directed by Urban Stages founding artistic director Frances Hill and associate producer Peter Napolitano, features a number of jazz standards as well as original songs by composer Barry Levitt and lyricist Napolitano. The script is by Beverley, whose interest in Mercer was sparked seven years ago when her singing coach said, “You should do Mabel Mercer.”
Although Mercer is not well-known to younger Americans, her life was certainly eventful. Her mother was a white English music hall performer, and her father was a black American Jazz musician who died before she was born. She was raised by her grandmother until her mother placed her in a convent school in Manchester. But Mercer had music in her blood, and blood will tell. Soon Mercer was entertaining the other girls at the convent and later traveling all over London “singing and dancing in music halls like Mama.”
Mabel Madness takes place in 1970 with Mabel, back home after touring Europe with her manager, Donald Smith. The show was called “Mabel Madness,” and Mercer remarks, “Quite frankly, it has to be madness with me doing this at my stage in the game!” This sends Beverley down the winding road of Memory Lane.
Despite the long gestation period of this show and the evident deep interest of all parties concerned, the show lacks the vitality that draws the audience into another person’s life. Beverley knows her character well, but she doesn’t embody her. She seems to be telling a story rather than living it.
By the end of the show we may understand that Mercer was a woman who created great magic onstage, but we have no idea how.
Mabel Madness: The Life of Mabel Mercer runs through March 20 at Urban Stages, 259 West 30 Street, www.urbanstages.org.
Running Time: 1 hour and 30 minutes with no intermission.