The trouble with “Mack and Mabel” is that, although it has a brilliant score with the best possible songs, it has never been able to overcome the problem of the book of the show. It’s not as if the original production in 1974 was short of talented people. With Robert Preston and Bernadette Peters starring, music and lyrics by Jerry Herman (“Hello, Dolly!”, “Mame”, “La cage aux folles”), libretto by Michael Stewart (“Bye Bye Birdie”, “Hello, Dolly!”, “I love my wife”, “Barnum”, “42nd Street”), it was still a flop. It did well on its pre-Broadway tour in San Diego and Los Angeles but came into New York and lasted for just 66 performances. 21 years later it finally hit London and ran at the Piccadilly Theatre for a respectable but not exceptional 270 performances with Howard McGillin and Caroline O’Connor in the title roles.
The reason for its failure, some say, is that the story of silent-film director Mack Sennett and his actress protégé Mabel Normand is too downbeat for a musical – the heroine dies in, as it were, in the last reel, probably of a drugs overdose. (Compare and contrast “Sweeney Todd” in which practically everybody is dead at the final curtain.) On the other hand, others say that no show about Hollywood was ever a success. Revisions were made for subsequent productions but the score was still jinxed by the book or the plot or whatever.
In between the 1974 and 1995 productions, champion-skaters Torvill and Dean used the “Mack and Mabel” overture for one of their ice-dancing routines, taken up by David Jacobs who played it on his BBC Radio 2 programme, thereby making the original Broadway cast album a chart hit. The great British public thereby got to know Herman’s score and was ready for the sell-out charity performance at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in 1988, in which all the chorus girls in London combined forces to present the ‘Hundreds of girls’ number from the show in a spectacular line-up of terpsichorean pulchritude never seen before or since in a West End theatre.
“Mack and Mabel” has never returned to Broadway, although it has played in provincial US theatres. It had a revival in the UK in 2006, directed by John Doyle at the Watermill Theatre in Newbury, using just eleven players who were also musicians. David Soul and Anna Jane Casey played the leads, the production then toured and came into the Criterion Theatre in London, but with Janie Dee in the role of Mabel Normand. And now Thom Southerland, the new doyen of musical theatre directors who proved his mettle at the Union Theatre in Southwark, and who worked with John Doyle on the Watermill production, has successfully revived the show at the Broadway Studio Theatre.
Since last we saw “Mack and Mabel” the book seems to have shrunk. The librettist Michael Stewart died in 1987, so this Revised Version has been made by his sister Francine Pascal. The story is told in flashback as film-director Sennett returns to his old studio in Brooklyn and reminisces about the silent days when he was in charge of the studio, when movies really were movies, the days of the Keystone Kops and Sennett’s Bathing Beauties. In the show he discovers Mabel Normand (“the kid from the deli”) as she is delivering a sandwich to one of the actors (in fact Mabel was an artist’s model). Sennett is attracted by her toughness and offers her a job in pictures. Things go well for a while and the two are romantically linked. Subsequently, however, Mabel tires of the cheap slapstick comedy movies that Sennett is churning out and wants to progress to drama. When Sennett refuses she finds another director, William Desmond Stewart, who also becomes her lover. Subsequently, she eventually returns to Sennett when he promises her a good dramatic role. However, Mack fills the movie with comic routines and Mabel leaves him again for Stewart, although she still has feelings for Mack. With Stewart her life goes downhill as he encourages her to use heroin, and when Stewart is found murdered, although Mabel was not involved, the scandal ruins her career and she dies a drug addict.
Not exactly a bundle of laughs, although Herman’s songs are joyous, Southerland’s production does go some way to restoring the show’s reputation. However, for a plot about a film-comedy director and his comedienne partner, the show is pretty low on both drama and laughs. It may lack substance dramatically and comedically but Southerland makes the most of the songs and the routines and he has a highly talented cast to perform them. Karl Clarkson’s Sennett is rough and tough and seems as ruthless as Sennett probably was. Gemma Boaden is a good foil as Mabel, fierce and feisty, no pussycat she, but a wild one whose short-lived career was successful until she went off the rails. Was it all down to Mack Sennett that her life deteriorated? Who’s to say? As the second leading lady, the wisecracking Lottie, Lisa Millar gives as good as she gets and Sean Pol McGreevy as the narrator Frank provides a strong link through the plot points and, clever fellow, also gets to play piano. As the studio accountants Kessel and Bauman, Adam Black and Owen Setter, make their mark but for the most part it is an ensemble production and as such works very well.
The stars of the show are, inevitably, the songs and they are executed with panache and pizzazz. Songs such as ‘Movies were movies’, ‘Big time’, ‘I wanna make the world laugh’, ‘Hundreds of girls’ and ‘When Mabel comes in the room’ are just great, rip-roaring choruses that any self-respecting musical would be proud of and here they are given exemplary performances by this great young team. And then there are the ballads: ‘I won’t send roses’, ‘Wherever he ain’t’ and in particular ‘Time heals everything’ which are all brilliant torch songs. As the penultimate, big number, ‘Tap your troubles away’, is a great crowd-pleaser performed by some great hoofers.
Perhaps if the evening had ended right-there on an upbeat, the history of “Mack and Mabel”, its success (or lack of it), would have been a different story. Mack’s final song is ‘I promise you a happy ending’ but the show itself doesn’t get one. However, Southerland’s snappy production is so good, it deserves an appreciative audience which it is bound to get.
- Mack and Mabel is at the Broadway Studio Theatre, Rushey Green, Catford, London SE6 4RU until Sunday 7 December 2008
- Wednesday to Saturday at 7.30 p.m., Wednesday and Thursday at 2 p.m., Sunday at 3 p.m.
- Tickets: 020 8690 0002
- Broadway Theatre