54Below should be called 54WayWayAbove, because as far as I'm concerned 54Whatever is a venue than can do no wrong, and they do right not once, not twice, but sometimes even thrice at night, at 7 PM, 9:30 PM and 11:30 PM.
When 54Below opened a few years ago, they featured the most established, renowned, never-did-a-show-they-weren't-proud-of stars like Patti LuPone and Ben Vereen, then gradually added combinations of lesser knowns but equally talented climbing-the-upper-rungs-of-the-Broadway-ladder-to-well-deserved-fame; to wit, performers like the talented 10 who joined Phil Geoffrey Bond in 54 Sings Mack and Mabel at 7 and 9:30 pm on March 8th.
Despite a sensational score, which many folks including composer Jerry Herman believe is Herman's greatest, Mack and Mabel didn't score well in New York. The show only lasted eight weeks on Broadway. Why? According to host Phil Geoffrey Bond, quoting Jerry Herman, miss-direction and miss-production done Mack and Mabel in. "Director Gower Champion was in his Chekhovian period and insisted on ending the show with the death of Mabel from a drug overdose. Producer David Merrick never came to the theater and didn't buy a single newspaper ad."
The story had snags. Neither Mack Sennett, the silent film comedy genius/creator of the Keystone Kops, nor Mabel Normand, his leading lady, were lovable characters. Robert Preston's Mack looked and was actually old enough to be the grandfather of the young Bernadette Peters, who played Mabel. But you can't keep a great score down! Mack and Mabel's book was tweaked to produce a happy ending, and like Stephen Sondheim's Merrily We Go Along, another Broadway failure with a glorious score, keeps popping up wherever music lovers long for lush melodies, intricate lyrics and toe tapping tunes, especially when they're sung by wonderful performers as they were at 54Below.
Let's start with the host, Phil Geoffrey Bond, the original Director of Programming at 54Below and their current Director of Original Programming with an accent on the word original. He's the creator/producer/host of the monthly Sondheim Unplugged and the originator of the 54 Sings series of one night only tributes to great American musicals. The shows Phil directs and hosts at 54Below are always hot, but he's always delightfully cool. Like a prizewinning theatrical anthropologist, he has an inimitable knack for including the most intriguing information in his commentaries and always matches outstanding performers with totally appropriate songs.
At 54 Sings Mack and Mabel, the leader of the band, John Fischer, deserved an Oscar for his appropriately rinky-dink arrangements. His band, The Bathing Beauties, played Jerry Herman's 1929-ishs tunes like they were ensconced on the bandstand at Gatsby's. As Mack, baritone Brett Barrett -- sigh, sigh, be still, my heart! - was everything you could want from a leading man, both vocally and visually. His clipped delivery highlighted Jerry Herman's intricately rhymed, clever lyrics of
Movies were movies when you paid a dime to escape
Cheering the hero and hissing the man in the cape
Dozens of blundering cops in a thundering chase
Getting a bang out of lemon meringue in the face
or the honestly cautionary warning of
Forget my shoulder when you're in need
Forgetting birthdays is guaranteed
And should I love you, you would be
The last to know
Kelli Rabke was pertly blue collar in Look What Happened to Mabel. Lee Roy Reams archly punched out Hundreds of Girls, Donna Vivino aptly expressed her fury in Wherever He Ain't. Emily Skinner tore my heart out with Time Heals Everything, the quintessential smoldering torch song.
Sorry you missed this? Think ahead. This coming Sunday March 15, 54 Sings Ahrens and Flaherty's A Man of No Importance starring Marin Mazzie, Douglas Sills and Klea Blackhurst. And then Phil Geoffrey Bond returns with Sondheim Unplugged in late April. How can you go wrong?