Mack & Mabel continues at the Chichester Festival Theatre until 5 September, and then tours the UK and Ireland from 1 October–6 December.
Star rating: five stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Jerry Herman and Michael Stewart’s musical, telling of the early days of silent film-making and the relationship between film director Mack Sennett and his greatest star Mabel Normand, has never really enjoyed the success that it is due. It only lasted on Broadway for 66 performances in 1974. This has been put down to the show having an unhappy ending.
But the release of the original cast recording led to the show being promoted regularly on the radio by the late broadcaster, David Jacobs. It was though this that the score won over many devoted fans, including this humble scribe.
In February 1988 a charity concert was held at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane at which composer and lyricist Herman appeared and introduced the show. George Hearn and Denis Quilley shared the role of Mack and received support from Georgia Brown, Paige O’Hara, Stubby Kaye, Tommy Tune and Georgia Brown. The concert was recorded and released on CD (First Night Records).
In the early 1980s there was a production at the Nottingham Playhouse where the role of Mabel was played by an emerging young actress – Imelda Staunton.
However, London audiences had to wait until November 1995 to see the show when Paul Kerryson’s production moved down from Leicester’s Haymarket Theatre and took up residence at the Piccadilly. It ran for only 270 performances despite a revised ending that promised a happier life ahead for Mabel.
The plot shows us Mabel stumbling into the world of film-making; her love affair with Sennett and its breakdown, interwoven with Sennett’s creation of the Keystone Cops and his troupe of Bathing Beauties.
There is a terrific score that mixes slapstick comedy – ‘I Wanna Make the World Laugh’ and ‘Hit ‘Em On the Head’ – with great production numbers – ‘Hundred’s Of Girls’ and ‘Tap Your Troubles Away’. But it is the two ballads that tower above the rest – ‘I Won’t Send Roses’ and ’Time Heals Everything’.
The overture is a work of art in itself and thrilled millions of TV viewers when it was used by Torvill and Dean for their free style ice dance routine at the World Championships in 1982.
In view of the recent magic that has been worked by Chichester Festival Theatre on musical revivals, there has been much speculation as to whether it can bring belated success this show. Without a shadow of doubt, director Jonathan Church and the cast and creative team have put together a superb production that could claim to be the definitive one (the book has been revised by Stewart’s sister, author Francine Pascal).
Roberts Jones’ set is simple and makes good use of projections – both as scenery and as a means to showing silent movie footage.
Choreographer Stephen Mear, as one would expect, has created some exciting routines which are executed with great panache and physicality – even one incorporating a custard pie fight. His Keystone Cops number is full of invention and fun. The invitation to ‘Tap Your Troubles Away’ is taken up by the always impressive Anna-Jane Casey who leads the ensemble in an exhilarating tap routine – interesting to recall that Casey played Mabel at the Watermill Theatre a few years back.
Some people may take exception to Mear giving Mabel two dancing partners in the middle of ‘Wherever He Ain’t’. I enjoyed it but my guest argued that it destroyed the dramatic tension.
Returning to the stage where he triumphed as Sweeney Todd, Michael Ball gives another stellar performance – once again losing his cuddly bear image and reinventing himself, this time as the domineering, loud-mouthed and insensitive Sennett. Through a slight change of stance he presents two Macks – a stooped old man looking back and telling the audience his story, and the younger man shouting and bullying his way around the studio. It is with the older man, reflecting on what he has lost, that Ball brings out a softer side.
Rebecca LaChance abandons Broadway for Chichester to play Mabel and what a fine job she makes of it. She reflects all the facets of the heroine’s personality – beauty, charm, vulnerability and comic talent. Her ‘Wherever He Ain’t’ is delivered with great ferocity whilst ‘Time Heals Everything’ is full of powerful emotion.
This terrific production fully earned the thunderous applause and prolonged standing ovation that it received and augers well for yet another Chichester transfer to the West End.
Readers may also be interested in:
Interview – look what happened to Rebecca LaChance in Mack & Mabel at Chichester
Mack & Mabel at Chichester Festival Theatre – a gallery of new images – News