Mack & Mabel
No production at Reprise! has been as anticipated as Mack & Mabel. For a show which ran only 66 performances on Broadway, it is remarkably well-known and well-loved. Musical theatre fans want this show to succeed. It has a terrific Jerry Herman score, loaded with songs like "I Won't Send Roses" and "Time Heals Everything," which deserve to be as popular as any theatrical ballads. Even before this production opened, the whispering could be heard, "Maybe, just maybe, they've solved the problems. Maybe Mack & Mabel is ready to try Broadway again."
The current revival seems to share our unspoken enthusiasm. This is, by far, the most ambitious production Reprise! has ever done. With all eyes on it, Reprise! has given us a seventeen-piece orchestra, a seventeen-member ensemble, real props, actual set-pieces, and three different costumes for each member of the female ensemble. Don't expect the next Reprise! production to look this good. Mack & Mabel has clearly used the lion's share of Reprise's budget for the year.
And so, the big question: Should this production be on the fast track to Broadway? The answer, reluctantly, is no. The difficulty lies where it always has: the book of the show. The plot is based on the story of silent movie director Mack Sennett and his leading lady Mabel Normand. They meet, he makes her a star, and she makes him a lot of money. They fall in love, he is unfaithful, and she leaves him. So far so good, and indeed, the first act of the show works comparatively well. There are some slight pacing problems, but, overall, the book scenes complement the songs nicely, and we have a good understanding of what makes Mack and Mabel tick, and how they've reached the point of breaking up.
The second act, in which Mack attempts to get Mabel back, is a mess. The act is brought to a screeching halt merely two songs in with "Hit 'Em On The Head," Mack's paean to his Keystone Kops. While the Keystone Kops were funny in the 1920s, a song about beating up police officers doesn't play all that well in Los Angeles in 2000. The song itself, with its slow refrain of "ha ha ha," is simply not in the same league as the rest of Jerry Herman's gems. The show derails again with "Tap Your Troubles Away," a big, bright tap number, led by Donna McKechnie. The number, however well-done, feels inappropriate, coming as it does after Mabel's heartbreaking "Time Heals Everything." The show has been building momentum for a final confrontation, and possible resolution, between Mack and Mabel; this is no time to take a break for a tap dance. The ending itself is more ambiguous than happy, with issues of Mabel's drug addiction and Mack's financial difficulties raised but ignored.
The problem is not with the cast; they all do their best. Mack is a difficult character; he's abrasive and cold towards Mabel. Douglas Sills plays him with a smile and a softness never too far from the surface, which keeps the audience from wondering what Mabel ever sees in him. Mabel is supposed to light up a room, and Jane Krakowski fits the bill. Her Mabel is truly a breath of fresh air, and her cheerful singing a delight. Donna McKechnie hits the right note as a veteran member of Mack's company, and her singing and dancing are as strong as ever, (despite being hindered in her first-act number by an inexplicably tight skirt).
The leads carry the show. Nearly all of numbers are sung by a single character, or a single character backed by the ensemble. Take away "Hit 'Em On The Head," and the only song led by more than one character is a short duet entitled, "Mack and Mabel." A few more shared songs would have added cohesion to this still-disparate script, and given Sills and Krakowski an opportunity to further develop the chemistry they were promisingly cultivating.
Perhaps Mack & Mabel is destined to be the definitive concert musical. As an opportunity to hear some great songs well-delivered, this production is an unqualified success. But it has hopes of being something more, and there, it falls short.
Reprise! Broadway's Best, Marcia Seligson, Producing Artistic Director, Ronn Goswick, Managing Director, presents Mack & Mabel November 8 - 19. Music and lyrics by Jerry Herman, book by Michael Stewart, revised by Francine Pascal. Scenic designer Gary Wissmann, costume designer Scott A. Lane, lighting designer Tom Ruzika, sound designer Philip G. Allen, original orchestrator Phil Lang, associate music director Gerald Sternbach, technical director Peter Falco, stage manager Jill Johnson Gold. Managing director Ronn Goswick, press representative Davidson & Choy Publicity, general manager Tuval Ipp. Produced by Marcia Seligson, music direction by Peter Matz, choreography by Dan Siretta, directed by Arthur Allan Seidelman.