Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Cincinnati

Mack and Mabel

Susan Nock and Gary Sandy
Mack and Mabel isn't the type of show that audiences are used to seeing at Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati (ETC). Artistic Director D. Lynn Meyers usually produces pieces with resounding social significance, as well as their annual original holiday musical. A Jerry Herman tuner seems an odd, yet welcome, variation. Chronicling events from 1910 through 1930, Mack and Mabel traces the tumultuous romantic and professional relationship of Hollywood director Mack Sennett and actress Mabel Normand. ETC's production is billed as "A Concert Version," and with a brief running time of about 80 minutes and a cast of only seven performers, it emphasizes the show's first-rate, agreeable Herman score. However, this reinvention of the piece seems to have merely traded book problems from the original script for new ones (though more palatable). This rarely mounted show is given a handsomely designed, solidly directed, and well-performed production by ETC, but one that feels somewhat incomplete.

When the musical debuted in 1974, the original book by Michael Stewart was heavily criticized for being too dark and for creating unlikable lead characters. Francine Pascal eventually revised the story to soften the rough edges and provide a more positive and upbeat ending (Mabel died in the original). For ETC's concert version, the book has been cut down to the bare minimum. Using only narration from Mack and minimal linking dialogue, the audience is given just enough information to follow the general plot; the rest of the storytelling is left up to songs. While this approach generally works well (there isn't any problem following the story), it does little to offer sufficient backstory, character development, or dramatic impact that might otherwise be expected. And this is the cause for nearly an hour being removed in the running time. However, it must be stated again that this version of the book does generally work well (which is more than has been said for previous incarnations), thought the outcome is a much cheerier one than what the original authors likely intended.

With the vastly reduced book, the show's success rests on the shoulders of its score. Luckily, the songs by Jerry Herman are strong enough to support the musical. The buoyant melodies and smart lyrics that have made Hello, Dolly! and his other shows famous are present here as well. From more serious numbers such as "I Won't Send Roses" (Mack's warning to Mabel that he won't be much of a romantic if they begin a relationship) and Mabel's two showcase songs, "Wherever He Ain't" and "Time Heals Everything," to the spirited "Tap Your Troubles Away," the score is a winner.

As Mack, Gary Sandy (best known for his role in the TV series WKRP in Cincinnati) is a compelling central figure with just the right balance of dramatic rancor and showbiz razzmatazz. While Mr. Sandy isn't a great singer, the role really doesn't require much in the way of vocals, and he delivers in all of the necessary elements. Susan Nock is a spunky and sympathetic leading lady, and she sings Mabel's material effortlessly. Patti James (Lottie) and Jeff Parker (Frank Capra) make the most out of their time in the spotlight as well.

Director D. Lynn Meyers is likely responsible for the book changes for this mounting, for better or worse. Ms. Meyers' staging is crisp and professional in every way, and both the humor and humanity of the piece are presented clearly. The design for the show is done in black and white, and is stylistically perfect for the piece. Scenic and Lighting Designer Brian C. Mehring's minimalist approach includes over a hundred film reels and canisters surrounding the performance area, which is bathed in white by rows of vintage sound stage lights. Seven director's chairs line the back for the actors, and the only other props are a few old-time cameras and projectors, and suitcases. The actors are attractively adorned in costumes by Reba Senske. The entire musical accompaniment for the show is skillfully provided by Music Director Scot Woolley on piano, and the limited choreography by Stephanie Brumer and Ashley Turin is apt and fun.

Due to its book issues, Mack and Mabel will never achieve the acclaim and following of other Jerry Herman musicals such as Hello, Dolly! , La Cage aux Folles, or even Mame. However, a concert version like the one currently on display at the Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati does shine light on the show's wonderful score. While this reinvention seems to be an audience pleaser, it feels like a Cliff's Notes version of the show to those used to more.

Mack and Mabel continues at ETC through October 1, 2006. Visit for more information and tickets.

Photo: Sandy Underwood / Ryan Kurtz

-- Scott Cain

Also see the current Cincinnati Area Theatre Schedule

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