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A CurtainUp Review
Mabel Madness: A Dramatic Play with Music about the Life of Mabel Mercer
Playwright/actress Trazana Beverley ( For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide. ) compellingly tells Mercer's story at Urban Stages Theatre. From 1900 until her death in 1985, Mercer's life was a steeplechase of emotional despair and heights of admiration — a life one might indeed call Mabel Madness.
Mercer's unique contribution was teaching listeners how to hear the lyrics and understand the song's essence. In her early days, she was a mezzo soprano but later her voice grew frail, and she delivered the songs in parlando, emphasizing the words. With insight, elegance and meticulous diction and rolling r's, she would sit a table, her voice conversational as she performed songs by the finest songwriters of the day. Her hands did not flutter, her gestures were slight, but "when you are quiet, people will listen to the words,"
With focused direction by Frances Hill and Peter Napolitano nine songs are set up by memories. Beverley traces a life that knew heartbreak in childhood, loneliness and struggle, but also grit and luck. Some songs were Mercer favorites, and some, like the opener, "The Story is My Song," were written for this show by composer Barry Levitt and lyricist Peter Napolitano.
The time is 1970 in Mercer's New York apartment. Tabitha Pease's set features a throne-like chair and round table on one side and on the other side, piled-up suitcases and a trunk. We see Mercer rummaging through her suitcases having just received a call from her manager, Donald Smith that he was taking her to dinner. Pulling out one dress after another, she is reminded of the memories they hold.
Mabel Alice Wadham was born in Staffordshire to a unwed teenager who did not want her and a black musician whom she never met. Passing the child on to other family members, Mabel was told to call her mother "Auntie Em" and rarely saw her after she was sent to a convent for education and then went on tour singing in England and France. It was in Paris where she felt she had a home.
Working with American cabaret performer, Ada "Bricktop" Smith, Mercer attracted a glittering audience that included various Dukes and Duchesses and Cole Porter, who appreciated her polished language skills and elegance. Bricktop supported Mercer's matchless gift for communicating the complexities and sophistication behind her selections.
With murmurs of an oncoming war, a wealthy fan financed Mercer's passage to the United States where she performed at a small New York club and then went to the Bahamas. When war broke out she was stranded. Kelsey Parr, a gay American musician, offered to marry her and bring her back to New York. This was now the golden age of cabaret and Mabel Mercer was 14-carat gold. She performed at legendary cabarets and posh hotels, but liked the small rooms best.
Often described as "queenly," Mabel Mercer remained a down-to-earth lady all her life. Four four important men in her life were her husband, her long-time lover, Harry Beard, Frank Sinatra and manager Donald Smith. It was Smith who brought her back to England in 1977, where she was received with great acclaim, appearing on television and radio. He also brought her to Washington D.C. where she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Ronald Reagan who called her, "...a living testament to the artfulness of the American song."
Watching Mabel Madness, is a lesson in listening. As Mercer told Sinatra, "Emphasize the words and use the pauses to match your emotions. And above all, sing the song like it was a moment in your life." In this skillful memoir with neat production values, Trazana Beverley's delivery of "Just One of Those Things" as Mercer sang it to Sinatra, is a master class in interpretation.