Jerry Herman's Tuneful Mack and Mabel in Morristown
Mack and Mabel chronicles the ill-fated romance of two-reel silent-comedy genius filmmaker Mack Sennett (best remembered for his Keystone Kops) and his female star Mabel Normand. In this version of their story, Sennett discovers Mabel, a poor Catholic lass, in 1911 while she is a waitress in Brooklyn, New York ("See that fascinating creature/ With perfection stamped on ev'ry feature/ She was plain little nellie/ The kid from the deli/ But Mother of God, look what happened to Mabel!"). It takes us through to 1928 and the advent of talkies.
Although the original Broadway production of Mack and Mabel only managed a 66 performance run in 1974, it boasts a marvelously melodic and jaunty score by Jerry Herman which easily ranks right up there with his famed scores for Hello, Dolly! and Mame. Almost every song is a gem. Inspired by the music that accompanied slapstick film comedies in the era of silent films, Herman has written some of the jauntiest songs in the musical theatre canon ("Dozens of blundering cops in a thundering chase/ Getting a bang out of lemon meringue in the face/ Bandits attacking a train/ One little tramp with a cane/ Movies were movies were movies when I ran the show"). Two classic ballads ("I Won't Send Roses" and "Time Heals Everything") and the joyful "When Mabel Comes in the Room" are among the treasures.
The imperfection lies in Michael Stewart's book. Sennett is an unromantic soul whose passion is reserved for the making of films. Thus, Mabel's unrequited love for him plays as foolishly stubborn, and the viewer is denied emotional involvement in their relationship. There have been several attempts to revise Michael Stewart's book in order to overcome this problem. In 1988, for the Paper Mill Playhouse production that Michael Stewart was working on when he died, the musical eliminated the Fatty Arbuckle sex scandal which destroyed his career. Rather than culminating with the death of Mabel Normand from tuberculosis, the production inserted the imagined wedding of Sennett and Normand which would have eventuated if life were a Sennett comedy. The Bickford production is based on a revised script by Michael Stewart's sister, Francine Pascal, for a 1995 London revival which continues to omit the Arbuckle scandal and ends with a return of Mabel to the Sennett studio with Mack displaying a new found attitude toward Mabel. For me, this is a satisfying ending. After all, isn't growth and change in a protagonist theatrically worthy? In fact, the entire second act (which involves Mabel's estrangement from Sennett and Normand's scandal-plagued years when she was involved with director William Desmond Taylor) plays extremely well.
Bickford Artistic Director Eric Hafen (who directed this production at Beach Haven's Surflight Theatre before its transfer to the Bickford) has pared down both the production elements and cast size (the original Broadway production had a 40-member cast whereas the production at hand makes do with a cast of twelve and a unit set in the guise of a film stage hanger), reducing the grand background and colorful detail of traditional Broadway musicals with the approach of London's Donner Warehouse and Menier Chocolate Factory in mind. However, Hafen's Mack and Mabel is large for the Bickford. After all, the Bickford has only a tad over 300 seats. With the employment of a high, wide proscenium which is artfully bedecked in the outer design of a Sennett dialogue intertitle, the stage appears quite substantial, and the cast of twelve, most of whose members are on-stage in a variety of roles almost all of the time, are a substantial company here. Four Sennett Bathing Beauties fill in for the sixteen seen on Broadway without a hitch. Hafen employs silent movie film clips to good effect. Given the unfortunate gap distancing the seating from the stage, it is particularly regrettable that the seven-piece orchestra is backstage with the music piped into the auditorium via speakers.
Scott McGowan delivers a smoothly affable Mack Sennett, neither eliding nor placing any emphasis on Sennett's coldness. Larissa Klinger is an appealing and lively Mabel. Both McGowan and Klinger are particularly pleasing in their delivery of the Jerry Herman score. One caveat: silent film comedy is deadpan, but in one number, Klinger smiles inappropriately as she performs each comic bit. Abbey Elliott as Sennett amanuensis Lottie delivers a dynamite song and dance, "Tap Your Troubles Away," abetted by the superior choreography of Tony Mansker. Alan Pagano (Fatty Arbuckle) and the entire ensemble make sizable contributions to the evening's entertainment.
All in all, Eric Hafen has delivered a substantial Mack and Mabel which is well worth seeing both by the musical's fans and those who have not previously had the good fortune to make its acquaintance.
Mack and Mabel continues performances (Evenings Thursday 7:30 pm/ Friday and Saturday 8 pm; Matinees Thursday and Sunday 2 pm) through October 17, 2010, at the Bickford Theatre at the Morris Museum, 6 Normandy Heights Road, Morristown, New Jersey 07960, Box Office: 973-971-3706; online: www.bickfordtheatre.org.
Mack and Mabel music and lyrics by Jerry Herman/ book by Michael Stewart /revised by Francine Pascal