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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Chichester Festival Theatre


  Anna-Jane Casey and Company/ Ph: Manuel Harlan

More than 40 years after it premiered on Broadway, Mack & Mabel is still in musical theater purgatory. Jerry Herman’s vivacious, tuneful score remains at odds with a poorly conceived book by his Hello, Dolly! collaborator Michael Stewart, despite attempts to fix it. This version includes light revisions from Sweet Valley High author Francine Pascal, Stewart’s sister, but it’s like trying to mend a deep wound with a Band-Aid. Even Michael Ball’s bravura performance as silent-film pioneer Mack Sennett isn’t enough to make this material memorable.
Part of the problem is that Mack & Mabel should be a musical drama, but it’s dressed up as musical comedy. Instead of using their colorful real lives, Stewart cheapens their story by simplifying them into two-dimensional characters. Sennett was a director who worked with the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle on his slapstick comedies, and Mabel Normand, the leading lady with whom he had a tumultuous personal and professional relationship.
Here, Mack becomes a bullying auteur who thinks only of his work, but it’s the rendering of Mabel (played by American actress Rebecca LaChance) that is especially shallow. By the time the real Mabel was in her early 20s, in the 1910s, she was writing and directing her own comedy shorts. Here, she’s a mere love-struck girl waiting for Mack to direct her in a serious film. LaChance captures Mabel’s naiveté and has a lovely voice, but she’s not the dynamic star the role demands. And, hindered by their considerable age difference, Ball and LaChance don’t generate any romantic sparks; his Mack is a father figure, not a love interest.
But Herman’s score, the one he’s deemed his favorite, is still a joy for the ears and a demonstration of his artistic range. The composer-lyricist of Hello, Dolly! and La Cage aux Folles is best known for bouncy, upbeat numbers, which are on display in Mack’s nostalgic and emphatic “Movies Were Movies” and Mabel’s joyous song of self-realization, “Look What Happened to Mabel.” But he’s also written some beautifully heartfelt ballads: “I Won’t Send Roses,” “Time Heals Everything” and “I Promise You a Happy Ending.”
Certain numbers catch fire, but this production from Chichester Festival Theatre artistic director Jonathan Church never fully ignites. Stephen Mear’s sprightly choreography is a fine fit for the songs, and the solid supporting cast includes Anna-Jane Casey, a dazzling dancer who leads the splashy “Tap Your Troubles Away” number, and Gunnar Cauthery, whose smooth voice soars in “When Mabel Comes in the Room.” But the divide in quality between Herman’s songs and Stewart’s story continues to hinder Mack & Mabel. Without a full book rewrite, this musical seems destined to remain a rarely produced curiosity. 


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