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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
MACK AND MABEL
at Chichester Festival Theatre

IN THE RIGHT HANDS
By CLIVE HIRSCHHORN

  Anna-Jane Casey and company/ Ph: Manuel Harlan

There aren’t too many Broadway musicals that flop despite having a truly great score. Epitomising this phenomenon is Mack and Mabel. First seen in 1974, with music and lyrics by Jerry Herman, the show closed after a mere 65 performances with a loss of its entire investment.
 
Its failure was blamed on the subject matter – the tortured relationship between the slapstick silent-screen director Mack Sennett and his popular leading lady Mabel Normand. Michael Stewart’s book was the stumbling block, failing to give its eponymous hero and heroine audience appeal. Mack, by his own admission, emerged as a self-absorbed, insensitive and uncaring despot, incapable of love. Mabel, forever and frustratingly in his thrall, turned to others for affection, in the process of which she became a drug addict and one of the suspects in the unsolved murder of director William Desmond Taylor, with whom she was having an affair.
 
With no one to root for, audiences remained unmoved and uninvolved, and even alienated. Over the years, numerous reworkings of the text have tried to make the material more user friendly, but with little success. Its enduring score notwithstanding, the show was deemed too fatally flawed ever to work commercially.
 
I’m delighted to report that the latest incarnation of this notoriously troubled show works a treat. Revised by Francine Pascal, the sister of the late Stewart, and directed by Jonathan Church and inventively designed Robert Jones, it has skill, expertise and Broadway know-how. Most important, it has found its heart.
 
As Mack Sennett, Michael Ball, fresh from his recent triumph as Sweeney Todd, sings superbly and somehow even excavates sufficient pathos to make you care. His leading lady is the American actress Rebecca LaChance, and even though, on the first night, she didn’t quite nail her big second act number, "Time Heals Everything," she brings a perky, engaging presence to the role of Mabel Normand. Both she and Ball do yeoman work in fleshing out characters that, on paper, still remain fairly two-dimensional.
 
The other standout performances are from Anna Jane-Casey – wonderfully vivacious in "Tap Your Troubles Away" – and Gunnar Cauthery (called Frank Wyman, but referenced as Frank Capra, one of the great Hollywood directors of the 30s and 40s.)
 
This bracing revival has two other indispensable assets: its orchestra and its choreographer. Under Robert Scott, 14 musicians thrillingly bring Herman’s catchy score to life (the overture, made famous by Torvill and Dean, raised the roof), while Stephen Mear’s brilliant Keystone Kops routine ("Hit ‘Em on the Head") and the infectious Hundreds of Girls routine, which uses witty film projections to create an appropriate sense of spectacle, are both exhilarating. At long last, Mack and Mabel has landed.

 


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