After an extensive search, American actress REBECCA LaCHANCE was cast as Mabel Normand alongside Michael Ball’s Mack Sennett in Chichester’s summer musical, Mack and Mabel, which opens tonight at the Festival Theatre (playing until 5 September, and then touring across the UK and Ireland).
Based on the true romance between Hollywood legends Mack Sennett and Mabel Normand, this musical comedy (book by Michael Stewart, music and lyrics by Jerry Herman) received eight Tony Award nominations when it opened on Broadway in 1974. The much-loved score includes ‘Time Heals Everything’ and ‘I Won’t Send Roses’.
LaChance’s credits include her recent Broadway debut in Beautiful – The Carole King Musical as a featured ensemble member while understudying Jessie Mueller in the title role. Other credits include Johnny Baseball (Williamstown Theatre Festival), directed by Gordon Greenberg, the director of Chichester’s acclaimed production of Guys and Dolls during Festival 2014; Broadway By the Year and Broadway Rising Stars (Town Hall); If You Give a Mouse a Cookie (Theatreworks USA); and Jane in Central Avenue Breakdown (world premiere, New York Musical Theatre Festival and Daegu International Music Festival South Korea)
Baltimore-born LaChance trained at the NYU Tisch School of the Arts studying at the Playwrights Horizons Theatre School, Experimental Theatre Wing and International Theatre Workshop, graduating with honours and winning the JS Seidman Award for Drama.
She is also a singer-songwriter and hopes to record an EP of her original music next year.
Mack & Mabel director Jonathan Church, also Chichester’s artistic director, commented: “Mabel Normand was ‘discovered’ by Mack Sennett and became one of the best loved female film stars of the era. Partly for this reason Michael and I always hoped we might cast an emerging young actress to play Mabel. And we are thrilled that Rebecca will follow in the steps of Bernadette Peters and Imelda Staunton who played this role at the beginning of their careers.”
Musical Theatre Review editor Lisa Martland chatted to Rebecca LaChance during a quick break in rehearsals.
By the time you reached the UK for the first time, it was for rehearsals and you had already been cast in the role of Mabel. What was the audition process like?
The first part of the audition involved me recording a couple of songs and scenes from the show and the video tapes were sent over to the UK. Then Michael Ball and director Jonathan Church came over to see me in New York.
I was in Beautiful on Broadway at the time and the audition was first thing on a Sunday morning. I had done seven shows already that week and had to get up at the crack of dawn to made sure I was on time to meet Michael and Jonathan. It was New York in February as well so it was freezing. I remember taking off my snow boots outside the door before going in! Then afterwards it was straight off to the stage door of the Stephen Sondheim Theatre for another performance of Beautiful.
Did you feel like the audition had gone well?
I have joked with Jonathan and Michael about the fact that I had no expectations about getting the part. I even wondered why they would ask me! I certainly hadn’t foreseen that the next step for me was going to be leaving New York and moving to the UK to take on this new role.
I always try to think a bit vaguely about how auditions are going to turn out. If you allow yourself to feel a part is definitely going to happen, the outcome can be disappointing, so I suppose the news came as a bit of a shock.
You were in a Broadway show at the time, understudying the lead, was it hard to leave that behind?
I had been at Beautiful for 20 months and it had been an amazing experience working on it. I loved everyone involved. But I was ready for something new and I had been keeping my eye out for what would be next. I didn’t know what an incredible project this would turn out to be though.
Were you nervous about moving to the UK and starting this whole new adventure in your life?
I was so thrilled and excited, but nervous at the same time. I did have trouble sleeping beforehand because of all those emotions. What if I didn’t make any friends? I know all the signs were there that things were going to work out well, but I couldn’t help doing a little bit of worrying!
Had you ever had an opportunity to see Mack & Mabel?
I hadn’t seen a production and I didn’t know the show well. I just knew the song ‘Time Heals Everything’, as I used to sing it at auditions, but not much outside of that, so it has been a huge learning curve.
After reading the book and learning the score, I began to realise what an amazing show it was. I became aware that the piece had a reputation for being a problem show [the original 1974 production of Mack & Mabel with Robert Preston and Bernadette Peters flopped], but it has such an impeccable score and the book is so beautiful and fascinating. I am having the time of my life.
Part of the controversy about the show was about the rather sombre ending that was changed to a happier version in some later productions. I believe the creative team at Chichester is returning to the original book?
Yes, Jonathan and the team are trying to get to the heart of the show, to back to where it began. We all believe that the musical hasn’t had a chance to shine in its original form for a long time. So Jonathan has been looking at a combination of scripts [working with the late librettist Michael Stewart’s sister, author Francine Pascal], taking pieces from different books that define the heart of the show. They have done such a great job.
I imagine it is quite a tiring show from a performer’s point of view, particularly as there is so much physical comedy involved.
The show is a huge undertaking for everyone as there are so many elements, more so than in a conventional musical. In addition to the slapstick, there are some huge dance numbers too.
At times, in rehearsal, Michael and I have looked at each other sometimes, knowing we are completely exhausted, but we always work on to make it better. In fact, the entire team and cast have an amazing work ethic. They are so devoted to making the show the best it can possibly be.
Has choreographer Stephen Mear been putting you through your paces?
It’s been crazy. I really don’t consider myself a dancer, I’ve always said I am an actress first, singer second, and dancing not at all! But Stephen has been getting me to attempt moves that I couldn’t have considered before. I am so grateful to him.
When my family comes to see the show they won’t believe their eyes, with all things he has got me doing!
What have you learnt from working alongside comedy and physical theatre company Spymonkey during rehearsals?
How there are so many details within comedy that you take for granted, and don’t really think about, and how hard it is to get the timing right. There is such an artistry involved in getting all the elements just right. If you take a step too soon, the moment’s gone; if you are on the ball, then there’s a good chance you will get that laugh you’ve been chasing.
Mabel is a force of nature, so ahead of her time, starring in her own movies, screenwriting, directing, producing, even running her own studio and production company in the late 1910s and early 1920s, which was unheard of for a woman. And, despite her demons, she was determined to have a great time doing what she was doing.
I have an entire YouTube playlist of more than 50 videos of Mabel in action, and have been watching a couple a day. Some of the comedy might not work all these years later, but it’s the her spirit that captivates you. She is just sensational on screen, you can’t look away, she’s so vibrant. I’m trying to bring those qualities to everything I am doing onstage.
What’s it been like working with Michael Ball?
Michael is an absolute dream of a co-star and we are having the best time together. I love going to work.
* Following the Chichester dates, there will be a UK and Ireland tour of Mack & Mabel from 1 October–6 December.
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