Intermission: Mabel Madness

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Carpe Diem!

Never miss an affordable opportunity to experience the Great American Songbook – timeless, quality songs and talents such as Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern –  melodic, lyrical, perfectly pitched, and rhythmically stylized – rarely happens anymore. When I read that the marvelous Trezana Beverley – whom I will never forget  in the early 80s  landmark “choreopoem” tellingly titled “for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf” would be doing a one woman show AND playing one of the Songbook’s singular proponents, Mabel Mercer  I literally jumped over the Hudson River to the tiny trunk of a stage on  West 30th Street.  It doesn’t get any better than this unless Mabel comes back to life – if only!  But I will gladly take the next best thing, so I thank you Trezana for a stunning evening of story and song.

The late, great Mabel Mercer was in a class all her own.  That cool, classy, articulate cabaret stage style that we now know so well originated with her.  Her smooth approach to a song and professional mantra – “the story is the song/the song is my story” – presented and gloriously underlined in a telling opening original song, guides us thru this 75 minute tour de force.  Yes, Mabel was before “our time” yet not – great music and performance preserved on vinyl outlasts us all, it defies yet defines time. I was amazingly lucky to be seated next to a well-known NYC cabaret performer who, in turn, was lucky enough to have seen Mabel perform in her later years.  He thought her voice had lost some pitch – age will do that – yet another far more interesting type of dialogue takes over – ONLY age can do THAT. And of course, she was mesmerizing.

And now her fully lived, dramatic world is relived on a small stage in which a comfortable chair and trunk full of memorabilia dominates and cues the next chapter in her life.  Her song/stories unfold chronologically thru her honest, personal recollections told on/off from that comfy chair.  This cozy method of delivery eventually became Mabel’s manner of performance. Her life mirrors the major events of the 20th century but this is ultimately a lady on her own.  Music was her financial backbone as well as her emotional nutrition.  Born to an unmarried white teenage Mother in Edwardian England, and a black musician Father (whom she never knew) she was left to be  raised by her white Grandmother and schooled by nuns.  Her talent was apparent and at a  relatively young age she was making a name for herself in the London music halls.  Unhappily she spent the majority of her life chasing her Mother’s love and perhaps this fact, alongside her mulatto coloring, is responsible for the pathos in her songs – there was always a moving undercurrent in her delivery, a tinge of sadness.  Her life in England, Paris, and ultimately NYC provides a travelogue of emotions and experiences – the world wars, the mid century NYC 52nd Street club scene, her personal loves, famous friendships, the men in her orbit – gay men, straight men, married and famous men – all emerge thru Trezana’s spot on performance.  Mabel’s 85 years knew financial hardships as well – life’s ups and downs come in all shapes and sizes.  Mabel knew it all.

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This stylized lady’s signature song, “If You Leave Paris,”  became a staple of her cabaret shows. Living in Paris in the 1920s, can you imagine? The mere mention of her close friendship with the legendary Bricktop sent me soaring. Mabel’s smooth, distinct style, emotional depth, and intimate song delivery marked a major turn in popular music as it left those noisy dance halls.  Her contemplative, introspective style took on many followers. Frank Sinatra, a major fan, hit it on the head when he said  “when she sings, it’s just you and me in the room.”  She was admired by the likes of Frank, Marlene Dietrich, Tony Bennett and Billy Holiday – and continues to unconsciously influence today’s cabaret vocalists. And indeed, it was Frank Sinatra who vigorously lobbied for Mabel’s “Presidential Medal of Freedom” award – given at the age of 83.

Trezana easily and lovingly morphs into Mabel.  I had to continuously remind myself that this was NOT Mabel on stage! Just as Hal Holbrook was so entwined with his performance as Mark Twain, while Julie Harris aligned with Emily Dickinson, I readily envision Trezana Beverley’s “Mabel Madness” a major piece of her future! This is truly TWO shows – Trezana/Mabel for the price of ONE.

Details: Mabel Madness will run until March 20th, 2016.  For more information and to purchase tickets, click here.

By: Joanne Theodorou

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