I didn’t know a lot about Mabel Mercer until I went to see Mabel Madness at Urban Stages last weekend. This one-woman show, written and performed with verve by Trezana Beverly, takes us from Mabel’s childhood in the UK, to her life as a cabaret star, first in Paris and then in New York. The play is set in Mabel’s apartment in NYC in 1983, a year before her death. It opens with Mabel, seated in an armchair on one side of the stage, telling the audience that we’re her family, then walking to the other side of the stage where she rummages through some trunks and a bureau, trying to find an outfit to wear for dinner with her manager. She’s very worried, as she’s been on a comeback tour, her voice just cracked, and she thinks her manager’s going to fire her.
As she’s fretting, she recounts her life story. Born in 1900, her parents were performers: her mother was a white English 14-year old music hall performer, and her father a black American jazz musician who died before she was born. Mabel was raised mainly by her grandmother; she didn’t discover that her father was black until somewhere around her teens. But Mabel didn’t let anything stop her, whether it was racial discrimination or two world wars. She went to Paris in the 1920’s, eventually headlining at Chez Bricktop, and becoming the toast of the town. On the eve of World War II she boarded an ocean liner for New York City with a ticket bought by Marlene Dietrich. Mabel conquered the Big Apple in short order, performing at supper clubs such as Tony’s, the RSVP, and her own Byline Club. Which isn’t to say that she didn’t have problems along the way… Not to be a spoiler, but this play has a happy ending.
This piece operates on many levels. It is first of all the extraordinary story of a woman who didn’t let life’s obstacles get her down and made it big on two continents. On another level, this play is also about believing in yourself, and coming to terms with the imperfections in the people you love.
This is also the tale of a woman who changed the way singers performed. Mabel Mercer took singing from the crooning style practiced by Bing Crosby, which is really all about hitting the notes, and taught singers to go for the emotion and tell the story in a song: to understand the lyrics and convey their meaning to the audience. Frank Sinatra made no secret of how she influenced his phrasing and taught him to tell the story, saying that everything he knows, he learned from Mabel Mercer. The roster of singers she influenced include Bobby Short, Tony Bennet and Billie Holiday. When listening to Mabel Mercer’s recordings, I get the feeling that like many cabaret singers, she came across better in person than in a recording studio, so it may take a bit of time to warm up to her style, especially the way she rolls her r’s. But stay with it.
Mabel Madness boasts some great songs, such as “Just One of Those Things,” “Summertime”, “Love for Sale,” as well as original compositions by Peter Napolitano and Barry Levitt.
Ms. Beverly plays all the roles, not an easy task, and does so with the right mixture of gusto and restraint.
Mabel Mercer’s legacy continues through the Mabel Mercer Foundation, which hosts an annual four-day Cabaret Convention in NYC, as well as workshops in schools.
The play’s run has been extended through April 10th at Urban Stages – Catch it if you can.