Mabel Madness is an intimate show, in an intimate theater, about an intimate performer. Mabel Mercer was a resilient and stalwart figure in the history of cabaret who significantly influenced the American music scene in the mid-20th century. Mabel Madness, which ran a brief 80 minutes in the preview I attended, is rich with song, but it is crafted and performed as theater.
Trezana Beverley did what performers have done for centuries to gain a platform – she wrote her own drama, in this case, one that focuses on Mercer. The story is peppered with songs, most recorded by Mercer, and two composed for the show by Barry Levitt, a much-admired New York musical director, with lyrics by Peter Napolitano, the director of Musical Theatre.
Deconstructing the facts of Mercer’s life, Beverley reweaves them into a story that is personal to her.(I note here significant disparities between various Mercer bios but, for purposes of this review, I have relied on the facts relayed by Beverley.) Beverley is a much decorated graduate of the NYU Tisch School for the Arts, has sung and acted on stage and screen (winning a Tony for her work in For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf), and has directed for the stage; she is currently part of the guest directing faculty of the Julliard School in New York City.
Mercer was credited with being the vocalist story teller. This performance, while tracing Mercer’s life, purports to tell us how that very successful focus arose, albeit painfully, from Mercer’s life. I heard Mercer myself only late in her career when I assumed she had adopted her style to accommodate a diminished voice and encroaching age but, in the course of the evening, I learned otherwise – and a good deal more that I had never known and would never have guessed. Is this a history that one has to know to be accounted a fully cultured person? Perhaps not. But it is an interesting story affectingly told. Beverley has, through her locution and singing voice, nicely evoked Mercer’s style and stage persona, and decorates the history with enough personal details, and Mercer songs, to bring the story to life.
The history is related as reminiscence shared by Mercer while nervously preparing for a performance, arranged by her near life-long promoter Donald Smith, after a long hiatus from the stage. Mercer was the product, in 1900, of a youthful dalliance in England between a white, British, teen-aged musical hall performer and Ben Mercer, a black vaudevillian acrobat. Mercer was admonished always to call her mother Emily “Auntie Em.” A shy child, Mercer’s mother forced her, against her will, to speak the Queen’s English and to project her voice. As a small child, Mercer turned to her Grandma Whadem for emotional shelter and was ultimately abandoned by her mother to her grandmother’s care in a household of relatives.
Mercer was subsequently swept from that very Catholic and condemnatory context to be deposited in a local nunnery; mom moved to America and adopted the name Emily LeBlanc. Beverley relates a bit of Mercer’s traumatic history with the nuns, her graduation onto the street at 14 with only her mother’s New York address, stints in the music halls of London and Brussels, back row parts in Showboat, her move to Paris in the mid-20s, and effective adoption by “Brick” (nee Ada Beatrice Queen Victoria Louise Virginia Smith, another mixed race child who became a mainstay of café society) and her life-long agent Donald Smith.
Mercer became the toast of Parisian cabaret – she was befriended by Cole Porter and Duke Ellington, was sought out by the nobility of England and drew the cultural luminaries of the age: Picasso, Chaplin, Channel, Olivier, Gabel and Grable, Marlena Dietrich and her lover, Jo Carstairs. Dietrich paid Mercer’s reluctant way to America in anticipation of the Nazi occupation of Paris. Mercer reached out once again to Auntie Em, and arranged to meet her mother. When Mercer asked whether she might call her and acknowledge her as “mother,” Auntie Em promised to “think about it.” Subsequently struck with tonsillitis, Mercer’s surgery was footed by Carstairs who then spirited her to a private Island in Nassau for recovery. There she met and fell into love with Kelsey Farr, a gay, black singer, who promised her all the emotional room she might ever need; they were wed and returned to New York.
Later Mercer was courted by Harry Beard, soon revealed to be married but unable to wangle a divorce, who promised he would never leave her; he did not. Ultimately Mercer was sought out as a role model and teacher by the likes of Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee, Mel Torme, Barbara Cooke, Billie Holiday and, most notoriously, Frank Sinatra, who credited Mercer with teaching him how to phrase a lyric. That skill she apparently got from Auntie Em who repeatedly coached her to tell a story, to act a part.
Whether as a matter of necessity or simple internal strength, Mercer lived by her own rules – never having had the guidance or shelter of a traditional family. She was timid, tough, tenacious and independent. She was sought out and feted as a performer and, only after her mother’s death, came to appreciate some of the scant good Auntie Em had done for her.
There is a sweet dénouement to the arc of the show which, for dramatic effect, I will refrain from sharing. Suffice it to say that Mercer was a triumphant survivor who started with little and made the most of it; she made loyal friends and gained life-time admirers; she imprinted her style on the golden era of American song like few others. She is a part of the history of American musical performance. The history would benefit by being more frequently anchored to external events, but Beverley’s telling is an appealing way to take in this history and learn more about Mercer’s remarkable life.
Frances Hill and Peter Napolitano are co-directors; Tuffus Zimbabwe provided suitably unobtrusive musical direction; Gail Cooper-Hecht, costumer design; Tabitha Pease, scenic design and Christina Watanabe, lighting. Nicholas Blade Guldner provided video design – which effectively superimposed people and places on the rear scrim to illustrate Mercer’s recollections.
Tanja Hayes Photos
Mabel Madness will be performed at Urban Stages at 259 West 30th Street through March 20, 2016.