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Chicago by John Olson

Mack and Mabel
Circle Theatre

Also see John's review of Equus

Mack and Mabel
Carolyn Brady, Brigitte Ditmars, Jon Steinhagen, Eric Lindahl and Peter Rasey
As far as famous flops go, this is one of the most intriguing cases: A show that on paper should have made tons of money for producer David Merrick, director-choreographer Gower Champion and songwriter Jerry Herman by repeating the magic and of their megahit Hello Dolly!. In spite of a cast that starred Robert Preston, Bernadette Peters and Lisa Kirk, a score among Herman's best, and the sort of period setting (the silent film industry of the 1910's and '20s) that attract audiences to musicals, it ran just 66 performances - leaving historians to wonder why.

Mack and Mabel is the latest musical of such pedigree to be given a second chance by Circle Theatre, who in recent years has produced the likes of Thou Shalt Not, Sweet Smell of Success and, last year, Herman's Dear World. To the great credit of the company and their director/choreographer Kevin Bellie, the show has been given production values as evocative of Gower Champion as one could ever imagine for a storefront theater. There's a cast of eight principals and an ensemble of ten that looks like a hundred on their small stage, and certainly hundreds of costumes if not "hundreds of girls" – colorful period costumes and film costumes designed by Jesus Perez that run the gamut from World War I business attire to the beachwear of Sennett's Bathing Beauties and the uniforms of the Keystone Kops. This all takes place within a simple but versatile set by Bob Knuth that mostly depicts silent movie sets, but effectively suggests locations like a cross–country train and an ocean liner dock as well. The production also boasts a liberal amount of black and white film footage, including clips from the original Sennett films as well as reproductions featuring the cast that blend amazingly with the authentic silent footage. Bellie and Knuth handled the archival compilation as well as the shooting of the new film.

The costume changes alone would have kept the company busy, but Bellie keeps them working throughout with his frenetic choreography. Their energy, upbeat demeanor and skill never flag through nine big production numbers that celebrate the chaotic style of Mack Sennett's comedies and culminate in the spectacular Busby Berkeley-esque "Tap Your Troubles Away." If anything, there may be too much going on to take it all in, but you give the creative team credit for recognizing that Champion's vision for the show surely must have been based on a the principle of giving the audience their money's worth in production values and for doing all they could to deliver that sort of show.

Circle is apparently using the version of Mack and Mabel that Herman and librettist Michael Stewart revised for the London and subsequent productions. It probably works better than the original, but there's still insufficient plot and character development – we seem to never learn enough about either Mack or Mabel. The plot can be easily summarized in a sentence or two – Mack Sennett discovers natural comedienne Mabel Normand and makes her into one of history's first movie stars; they fall in love but the affair ends when Mack cheats on her. She leaves him for the wrong sort of man who leads her to drug abuse and she dies tragically as Mack's filmmaking style becomes out of vogue as talkies replace silent movies. Although the archival clips give us a chance to see Normand's work, we're never shown enough of the character to let us fall for her the way we're told she was loved by her friends, co-workers and movie fans. About the most we learn of Sennett is that he's a self-absorbed workaholic.

It's particularly disappointing because we would love to see more stage time for Cat Davis, making her Chicago stage debut as Mabel. She's a gifted comedienne and actress with the ability to belt without losing control. As Mack, Jon Steinhagen (not quite a singer but then neither was Preston) handles the part capably but is really not given enough to work with by Stewart and, being on stage most of the show, is not entirely able to carry the show on his shoulders. It's also unfortunate the supporting role of Frank Capra doesn't give more opportunity to enjoy the strong and pleasing voice of Eric Lindahl. Brigitte Ditmars in the Lisa Kirk role of Lottie does a terrific job of dancing in her production numbers "Big Time" and "Tap Your Troubles Away," though she's not quite as vocally confident as Lindahl or Davis.

With this version, Stewart acknowledges the tragedy of Mabel's drug abuse and death in her late thirties as well as the pathos of a man whose work, which has meant everything to him, becomes irrelevant. He gives us almost enough to picture a story of lovers who could never really quite connect in the way they should have, and the untimely loss of two great talents – one from substance abuse and the other from an inability to adapt and reinvent himself. Stewart and Jerry Herman got it, with Herman brilliantly inching his sunny show tunes into edgier and ironic contexts while staying true to his own style. They dance at the edges of Sondheim-land in a few spots: Mack's ballad "I Won't Send Roses," establishing Sennett as a self-absorbed and non-expressive lover might be a cousin to Sondheim's "Marry Me a Little" from Company, while the juxtaposition of "Tap Your Troubles Away" to the sadness of Mack and Mabel's lives in the 1930s evokes Follies. Mostly, though, Stewart and Herman seem more interested in film history and compelled to cover (and create production numbers for) all of Sennett's major franchises – Mabel Normand, the bathing beauties, the Keystone Cops – and as terrific as Herman's comedy songs may be, four different production numbers in which Mack declares his love for making comedies are two or three two many.

Still, Circle makes a case for Mack and Mabel as a worthy attempt by Stewart and Herman. Even if it may not be great musical drama, it's great fun with enough honesty and realism to gives it some emotional weight as well.

Mack and Mabel will be performed Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. through April 7 at Circle Theatre, 7300 W. Madison St., Forest Park, IL. For ticket information, visit www.circle-theatre.org.


Photo: Bob Knuth

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-- John Olson



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