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San Francisco by Richard Connema

A Lively Production of Mack and Mabel

Also see Richard's reviews of Shopping! The Musical and The Glass Menagerie

Mack and Mabel
Michael Patrick Gaffney, Cindy Goldfield and Bill Fahrner
San Francisco's prime semi-concert company 42nd Street Moon Productions is currently finishing their 2006 season with Jerry Herman's sparkling musical Mack and Mabel. This is one of the original "bad luck" musicals of the '70s. It was personally bad luck for me also.

Composer and lyricist Jerry Herman could do no wrong after the high-flying Hello, Dolly!. Herman, David Merrick, director Gower Champion, and librettist Michael Stewart got together to create a musical about the explosive romance between silent film director Mack Sennett and his brilliant comedy star, Mabel Normand. Sennett, an abrasive and crude man, headed his own fun factory and said it was his duty to make the world laugh. His personal life was not funny. This was a character the audience would not like.

The producers scored a coup and quickly signed Robert Preston to portray Mack Sennett. However, they had difficulty getting a leading lady. Penny Fuller was to be cast as Mabel, but she pulled out. Two other actresses came up for the role but they were dismissed. People started to call the pre-production of the show Mack and Maybe. Finally, they called Bernadette Peters, who was preparing to star in a West Coast production of Sugar. She got out of the contract and the foursome had found their Mabel.

Mack and Mabel began previews at the Majestic Theatre on October 6, 1974 with Lisa Kirk playing Lottie the girl Friday to Mack. Her big number comes jarringly into the second act where drugs, booze and scandals dominate the scene. It seems strange that amidst all of this she sings the great number "Tap Your Troubles Away." I saw the musical two weeks into its brief run and I thought the same thing.

Critics slammed the show, saying the book was a complete mess. However, The New York Post called Preston and Peters' performances "two of the finest of the season." The audience did not like the downbeat ending of Mabel dying from drug and alcohol abuse. Mack and Mabel lasted only 64 performances. Many believe that this is Jerry Herman's best score, and there have been many attempts to revive the musical.

My own experience with the musical was many years ago when I was investing through a British consortium. We thought it was just right for the British audience to see a first class production. The producers acquired Howard McGillin as Mack and Caroline O'Connor as Mabel, with Kathryn Evans playing Lottie. The reviewers liked it but audiences stayed away in droves and it closed leaving the backers out in the cold. When I saw it in London, I could see that the book was still a mess and the musical had no zest.

Reprise did a superb production in 2000 with a terrific cast of Douglas Sills as Mack and Jane Krakowski playing Mabel. Donna McKechnie as Lottie tapped your troubles away. The book was revised and it had a more cheerful ending, but the ending was still ambiguous. Goodspeed did a revised version in 2004 with Scott Waara playing Mack and Christiane Noll playing Mabel. Donna McKechnie repeated her role as Lottie. In that production Mabel lives at the ending but there were still fundamental problems with the show.

Mack and Mabel is once again in London at the intimate Criterion. It is a small production using the same idea as the Sweeney Todd production in New York: there is no orchestra and the actors are playing the instruments on stage. David Soul is playing Mack and Janie Dee is Mabel. Notices have not been very good.

42nd Street Moon, under the able guidance of director Dyan McBride, is doing a bang up production. This revision has a "Hollywood film ending" in which the drugs and alcohol are downplayed. Mack comes to the center of stage to tell the audience that the musical needs an upbeat ending, so the whole cast does a fun wedding scene with Mack and Mabel. Maybe not the greatest ending, but much better than prior versions I have seen.

Bill Fahrner (many productions with the group) has returned to the 42nd Street Moon stage in one of his best roles, as Mack. He has the charisma and chutzpah to make his character outstanding, and great vocal chops on "I Won't Send Roses" and "I Wanna Make the World Laugh." Even his delightful rendition of "I Promise You a Happy Ending" at the end of the show is right on the mark.

Cindy Goldfield (two time SFBATCC award winner and a Dean Goodman Choice Award recipient) is very good as Mabel Norman. She captures the spirit of the young waitress from New Jersey who becomes an overnight star of slapstick silent films. She gives that first act some comic life. However, in the second act she is not all that believable as her character descends into booze, drugs and scandal. She sings the great classic song "Time Heals Everything" in the second act with very little feeling, belting the song like the late Ethel Merman, leaving us with no emotion.

Amy Louise Cole as Lottie has little to do and does not get to shine until her big tap number, "Tap Your Troubles Away." She is good in both the dancing and singing department. Director Dyan McBride brings in four "Vitagraph Girls" played by Christa Boggs, Fiona Cheung, Molly Anne Coogan and Mary Kalita to do some nice time stepping to help out in the number.

Director McBride also uses some of the 42nd Street Moon regulars to fill in the supporting roles. Steve Rhyne has little to do as Frank the screenplay writer (Frank later becomes Frank Capra). Most of his singing is in the choral work of "Look What Happen to Mabel" and other songs. Kalon Thibodeaux (Minnie's Boys and I Hate Hamlet) gets a chance to show his comic ability in the song and dance number "My Heart Leaps Up/Hit 'Em On the Head, along with Benjamin Pither (making his San Francisco debut) and Bill Fahrner hamming it up on the number.

Sean Patrick Murtagh makes a perfect Fatty Arbuckle and has a smooth voice in "When Mabel Comes in the Room." Michael Patrick Gaffney (many 42nd Moon Productions) is effective as William Desmond Taylor. Tom Orr and Sung Min Park have small but effectual roles as part of the singing and dancing chorus.

Staci Arriaga has done outstanding choreographic work on such a small stage. The slapstick and pratfalls by the cast during the "filming" scenes is very well done. Loran Watkins has obtained authentic costumes of the periods for the cast. Once again Dave Dobrusky does a fantastic job on the piano. It almost sounds like a full orchestra.

Mack and Mabel runs through May 7th at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson Street, San Francisco. For tickets please call 415-255-8207. The company opens their new season with Gene De Paul and Johnny Mercer's Li'l Abner on July 20th and running through August 13th.


Photo: David Allen


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema



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