Just as one swallow does not a summer make, one show is insufficient for a proper Chichester weekend. So after a perilously short afternoon nap we braved the Sussex rain and made our way back to the Festival theatre for our evening’s entertainment, Jonathan Church’s production of Jerry Herman’s 1974 musical, Mack and Mabel. I’ve always been interested in the history of musical theatre but for some reason this is a show that’s always passed me by. I remember the overture being used by Torvill and Dean to great effect, but that’s about all.
But then it didn’t set the Broadway world alight when it first hit the stage. It may have been nominated for eight Tony awards, but it didn’t win any of them; and its original run lasted a mere 66 performances. Odd, considering it had something of a dream team with music and lyrics by Jerry Herman and choreography by Gower Champion (repeating their joint success of Hello Dolly, ten years earlier). But sometimes great ingredients don’t necessarily make great shows, and even if they do, sometimes, somehow, they just don’t click.
To fill you in (and if you don’t want to know what happens, you probably should skip this paragraph): it’s the story of the partnership of Mack Sennett (he of the Keystone Kops) and Mabel Normand, one time waitress, swept into stardom by Sennett as she appeared in many of his very popular two-reelers. They have a romance, even though he’s not the romantic type; but when Sennett refuses to make the film of Molly, in which writer Frank has written her a role of (we suppose) depth and class, she gets ideas above her station and leaves Sennett’s slapstick, pie-flinging studio and takes up with William Desmond Taylor’s more serious and respectful manner of film-making (and, indeed, romancing). As Sennett’s popularity declines (there are only so many Keystone Kops and Bathing Beauties that a nation can take), he entices Mabel back to make the film of Molly but he still can’t resist jazzing it up and turning it into a comedy, so she walks out on him again. Talkies come, and Sennett finally sees the light – not with spoken drama but with music – and he makes one more play for Mabel, but she’s now a drug addict (we saw Taylor giving her cocaine) and she dies before he has the chance properly to make amends, let alone another movie with her.
So despite Jerry Herman’s outrageously tippety-tap-happy show tunes, there’s a fair bit of sadness in the story, which makes for an interesting mix. In fact the ending was re-written for the 1995 London production, with Mack and Mabel happily reunited in each other’s arms at the final curtain, and I believe that is now the “default setting” for other revivals; although this Chichester production returns to the more sombre original. Whether that gives the story a little more “bite”, or whether you feel the happy/sad combination is a little awkward, is very much a personal thing. Personally, I quite like the bite. Perhaps what is more controversial about the show is how it very much misrepresents what actually happened in reality. This is definitely a fictionalised account of Sennett and Normand; for example, it suggests to you that the Keystone Kops were brought in to boost flagging ratings (not so, they were right at the forefront of Sennett’s early output) and that the Bathing Beauties were an alternative to Mabel once she had left the studio (again not so, she performed alongside them in their earlier films). There is no mention made of Mabel’s directing and producing career, nor of her marriage to actor Lew Cody. The show would have you believe that she left Sennett’s studios to work with William Desmond Taylor, but in fact it was Sam Goldwyn that she first worked for after leaving Sennett; any dalliance with Taylor came later. The show also implies that it was Taylor who introduced Mabel to the cocaine habit, whereas in fact she was already an addict and had approached Taylor to try to wean her off it. So don’t take the story of Mack and Mabel the musical as Gospel – just think of it as a collection of characters jumbled together in some sort of serving suggestion.
The last time we saw a musical at Chichester (also with Lord Liverpool and the Countess of Cockfosters) it was the extraordinary Gypsy with the even more extraordinary Imelda Staunton, which has gone on to do great things in the West End. So it was almost inevitable that the four of us would compare Gypsy with Mack and Mabel to see who would come out on top. For me, it’s no question that it’s the former; and that’s nothing to do with the standard of this production of Mack and Mabel, which is superb. It all comes down to the characters. Rose in Gypsy is really complex, giving Ms Staunton a gift of an opportunity to flesh out the character with humour, horror, kindness, dementia and everything in between. By contrast, Jerry Herman’s Mack is one-dimensional. He makes films. He falls in love with Mabel but it’s all on his terms, she doesn’t change him. He is addicted to slapstick. There’s not much more you can say about him. Even comparing with Hello Dolly, Sennett is still a very simple creation, whereas Dolly Levi schemes, manipulates, cajoles, supports and is all things to all men. In Gypsy, both Rose and Louise go on an incredible journey. In Hello Dolly, Dolly starts with an ambition, achieves it, and (I believe) genuinely falls in love. However, in Mack and Mabel, Sennett ends where he started; a retrospective of his career and his relationship, but with no sense of progress. Mabel, for sure, does go on a journey, but ends up in a dark place; but that’s almost irrelevant as the structure of this musical (despite its title) means this is definitely The Mack Sennett Show, and that other characters are relatively incidental. In many ways it’s an unbalanced and under-written show (not in the actuarial sense) and to make a success out of it, you have to heap it with stunning performances and top quality production values.
And that’s precisely what they do. From the moment the 15-man orchestra (not being sexist, they are all men) strikes up that glorious overture, your “good-time” endorphins kick in and you just know you’re in for a musical treat. I wasn’t familiar with the songs before the show, but some of them are pure Herman showstopping heaven. Look What Happened to Mabel, When Mabel Comes in the Room, Big Time, and many others all have you itching to get up on stage and hoof along with the rest of them to Stephen Mear’s stunningly entertaining choreography. Robert Jones’ design is a source of constant surprise and delight, as the film studio becomes the observation deck of a train, a pier with a ship in dock, and various abstract celluloid fantasy set-ups. The large acting space that the Festival Theatre provides is perfect for huge set piece moments, with two outstanding scenes; one, where the Keystone Kops run riot – Toby Park and Aitor Basauri from Spymonkey are credited with “physical comedy” and they have their autograph all over this scene; and another, where the company perform the taptastic Tap Your Troubles Away with superb skill and showmanship. I must confess, I’m not a huge tap fan – 42nd Street put me off it for life really – but that scene really was the bees’ knees.
And it’s all brought to life by a tremendous cast. At the heart of it is Michael Ball as Mack, who I don’t think could be anything other than magnificent if he tried. Such a huge stage presence, you can almost feel his delight as the show progresses, as if the cast are his one big family that he is proudly showing off to us. Excellent comic timing, and still with a voice that is just made for this kind of show – simply superb. His Mabel is relatively unknown to us in the UK – Rebecca LaChance, and she’s amazing. She has a wonderful expressive voice, loads of pizazz and is pretty cute too. I really liked how she adapted to Mabel’s various stages of life, like the wide-eyed innocent, the sophisticated actress, the drugged-up victim, with (seemingly) effortless ease. I predict great things!
A bonus to any cast is the effervescent presence of Anna-Jane Casey, brilliant in both Forbidden Broadway and Sheffield’s Company a few years ago. She plays Lottie, a silent character actress in the Sennett squad who comes into her own when the talkies start – her performance fronting Tap Your Troubles Away is sensational, but she always brightens up the stage whenever she’s on. There’s a very nicely controlled comic performance by Jack Edwards as Fatty Arbuckle, another of the Sennett studio actors for whom life would turn sour; and also great contributions by Ashley Andrews (memorable in Drunk), and Rebecca Louis, as the production’s Dance Captains – the ensemble’s overall superb standard of dance is a testament to their ability to keep them on their toes. But the whole cast do a terrific job.
So all in all it’s a really enjoyable production, with some stand-out performances and stunning routines. Once it’s finished in Chichester it’s embarking on a national tour until December and I strongly recommend you catch it at either Plymouth, Manchester, Dublin, Edinburgh, Nottingham or Cardiff!